Students deserve something better

16th August 1996 at 01:00
Once again, the Government could throw away the support of thousands of first-time voters by telling them that their A-level results are not worth the paper they are written on.

This "declining standards" annual chorus has been sung ever since compulsory education was introduced. For more than 100 years, this chorus has been led by crusty employers and a gerontocracy on the Right, who are jealous of the rising generation.

The Government has made the chorus even louder by its misguided determination to nationalise school testing and examinations. In the past, few worried whether such results represented an "improvement" on the previous year, whatever that might mean.

Whether Britain was still Great depended on whether we won wars or Olympic track events or architectural competitions. Nor did anyone deceive themselves that all A-level results meant the same thing.

One summer, many years ago, one of my qualification-less offspring suddenly said: "Dad, what's the easiest A-level?" "AEB British Constitution," was my off-the-cuff reply. (There being no British constitution, it seemed to me that it had to be the easiest.) By the following January, he had a fundamental understanding of the qualifications paperchase, a decent A-level grade and a place at art college.

Today the A-level system, the GCSE, and the 5-plus, 11-plus and 14-plus testing regimes are expected to deliver outcomes of absurdly inflated reliability - and, worse still, an assessment regime calculated to identify "failure" - to a credulous public. In response, the Government blames children, schools, examiners, and local councils - anyone but itself.

The "problem" is a pseudo one. It derives from the Government's obsession with the nationalisation of "quality" league tables. Compare this to further education, an entity that came together in the First World War when Lloyd George wanted to manufacture tanks and the professionals told him it would take seven years to train the apprentices.

Happily, the quality assurance system devised for further education by Terry Melia, departing chief inspector of the Further Education Funding Council, avoids the vogue for national systems. There will still be an important argument about the structure and content of vocational qualifications; but FE league tables will be absent from it.

Or take higher education, which the public understands a little better. Here, Government schemes to nationalise "quality" have been thwarted by a coalition of universities and colleges.

There is a growing acceptance that degree quality and grade inflation can be left to the student and employer "market". Students know roughly how much their degrees are "worth". The Government is sensibly ceasing to pursue the spectre of a uniform degree gold standard.

Quite why the Government has been unwilling to trust the internal market and is so intent on imposing an expensive, publicly financed audit burden on education is a mystery. The professed reason is to give parents and students and employers (in terms of universities) "information" to help them choose.

It has never, however, researched the extent to which parents, students and employers appreciate and use this information and whether they approve of the cost.

The truth is that "quality" and "standards" are elusive creatures about which parents and students gather information from grapevines. Published exam results and league tables sometimes confirm prejudices; but when governments pick them over and throw their reliability into doubt, they make themselves look silly by trying to discredit a system they have created.

So it makes educational as well as political sense for the Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard to resist the annual self-denigration ritual. In the past, this has been inspired by a tabloid hunger during August for education stories and by her enemies in the prime minister's office, who wanted to replace her with someone rather more anti-teacher and macho.

Their bete noire this year promises to be the modular element in A-level courses. Mrs Shephard may make regulatory touches on the tiller in September to quieten her critics. But she knows that modular courses are increasingly common in HE and are endemic in vocational curricula and in the continental assessment systems. The only motivation for targeting English children with a diet of "sudden death" examinations is a nostalgia for the happiest days of their public and grammar school lives on the part of immature politicians who were trained to succeed in such exams.

Today's successful A-level students on the brink of their university careers deserve something better from the Government.

Christopher Price is a former chairman of the Commons select committee on education

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