Press should reward top A-level achievers

20th August 2004 at 01:00
This week, we see journalists and pundits start to stir from their August stupor to see what new angle can be found for the reports of A-level results. Is it to be "pass rate rises to record levels - well done all of you", or "further rise in pass rate renews charges of slipping standards", or "100% pass rate gives impetus to Tomlinson demands for a new qualification" or "shock fall in pass rate as new agency gets tough with examiners" ?

Few commentators, except perhaps a few headteachers who are not too busy demanding re-marks, stop to ponder the effect of the fuss on the young people who provide the meat to this sausage machine. In the midst of the mud-slinging, they are supposed to secure places at their university of choice, find their student loan application lost in a new bureaucratic swamp, and gear themselves up for a new and challenging stage of their life. All within about three weeks.

Free of conventional academic terms for the first time, I spent my holiday in France rather earlier than usual this year. I was there when the Baccalaureate results were published, in early July. Publication of results by this date was remarkable in itself. The absence of complex agencies and private-company examining boards seems to enable results to be confirmed rather quickly, for examinations taken about the same time, or later, than A-levels in England.

But the most remarkable thing was the press coverage, and its contrast to what we have come to expect here. There were some calm congratulations from ministers, and local academics, to the successful candidates. There were complete pass lists of all the successful candidates in the region. These included the pass lists of all the "filieres" or pathways, presented alphabetically, with no pecking order between the academic and vocational routes.

OK, we all know that science and letters carry more brownie points with the general public than the Baccalaureate Professionel in Patisserie (although the person who knows how to make tarte aux fraises arguably adds more value to my holiday), but it wasn't obvious from the presentation of the pass lists. The only categorisation was of the classes of pass, with "tres bien" for the best.

"Tres bien" attracted press content of another kind. There were loads of advertisements from local and national companies, congratulating the candidates, and offering gifts to those with the best passes. "Tres bien" earned you e100 from a newspaper chain; e50 from a supermarket chain; a similar amount from a bank; a new mobile phone from a department store; cinema tickets; books and other gift tokens from sundry retailers. "Bien" got e80 from the newspaper, various gifts, and slightly lower value tokens.

None of these was tied to opening an account at the bank, or getting your mum to shop at the supermarket. They were string-free tokens of goodwill to young people who were acknowledged to have worked hard in a well-tried system.

They certainly had worked hard. To pass the baccalaureate, you have to achieve a pass in each of your studies in French, history, geography, a foreign language, philosophy, maths, and science. Marks are weighted towards specialist areas, and the "tres bien" students are very good indeed.

The pass also gets you a place in higher education, usually at your nearest regional university, and the distinct possibility of being thrown out at the end of the first year. This is the other side of the coin, and may or may not be what our government wants to achieve with its target of 50 per cent of young people entering higher education. Does that mean they get to try it for a year, but will be ejected later, to get class numbers down to a manageable maximum?

The number (or percentage) of university graduates produced in each system may be broadly similar, but my very unscientific observation from under my holiday hat suggests that young graduates in France have greater confidence about where they are going, and are more aware of the world in which they live. Their English is also a great deal better than the French of most undergraduates on this side of the Channel. They have not had their confidence in their studies undermined by rubbishing in the press.

Vive la difference, indeed, but I'd like to see our press offer a few string-free rewards to the highest achievers in this year's A levels. That would be worthwhile chequebook journalism.

Beryl Pratley is an educational consultant

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