Shephard to invite review of standards
There is, of course, no definitive answer, for so much - including technology and facilities - has changed in a generation.
The analogy with the debate over A-level standards is apposite. Are standards rising, or falling? The answer is a bit of both.
Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, is understood to be angry at the ritual sniping at the news that, once again, this year's results are better than ever. Privately, she is said to believe it is an insult to those who have worked hard for their grades.
Given the increasing popularity of A-levels, which again attracted record entries, Mrs Shephard is unlikely to be persuaded to make further changes. She is likely, instead, to call in Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.
Sir Ron, her favourite referee, is already reviewing 16-19 qualifications. In an interim report last month, he stated that the "rigour" of A-levels should continue, that there should be common national standards of assessment and that, crucially, assessment should be "firmly based, fit for its purpose and consistent over time, with checks to ensure standards are maintained".
Under pressure from the Right, and with her chief inspector Chris Woodhead anxious about consistency in the awarding of grades, Mrs Shephard is set to order a separate review to determine whether the rise in pass rates since the late 1980s is the result of genuine improvements or easier syllabuses, more generous marking or the tendency of schools to encourage students to take subjects where the pass rate is highest.
SCAA is already preparing two reports - one on grade consistency, the other examining whether science and foreign languages, among other subjects, are harder.
The review, if it gets the Secretary of State's go-ahead, will be more fundamental, attempting a detailed analysis of previous marking schemes and scripts, where still available, going back 20 years. It is unlikely to report before autumn next year, well after the publication of Sir Ron's final report at Easter and next summer's A-level results.
The indications are that it will find little evidence to support the traditionalists, with senior SCAA officers apparently unconvinced that rising results are due to nothing other than greater motivation, an improved curriculum and better teaching.
One thing there is agreement on is that the steady rise in results began in 1987, when the Government scrapped the fixed pass rate which automatically failed 30 per cent of candidates. (see graph).
Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Manchester University, said the change removed the glass ceiling on student achievement. "When that came off, the bright students were able to shine through."
Professor Carol FitzGibbon, director of the curriculum evaluation and management centre at Newcastle University (who last year co-authored a SCAA report which found that science, maths and foreign languages yielded lower grades at A-level), agrees improvements in achievement are real.
She believes an inquiry could be worthwhile, but says the real need is to set up a system, like the Assessment of Performance Unit disbanded by the Government in the 1980s, to monitor standards.