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Trivialised pursuit

THERE is nothing like getting your retaliation in first. This week's attack by the chief inspector on "trendy" courses could hardly have been better planned to take the gloss off the announcement of improved A-level results.

Although Mr Woodhead's comments about "vacuous" subjects, such as media studies, golf course management and beauty therapy, were made about degrees, they are clearly unhelpful to a government committed to introducing new vocational A-level courses in September. And they add fuel to the fire of those who each year claim that an increase in exam pass rates is evidence of "dumbing down".

For these traditionalists, this year's slow-down in the improvement of A-level results is presumably a cause for celebration. For the rest of us, it is further evidence of just how much hard work in schools is needed every year to improve on the results of those who have gone before.

However, well-deserved praise for pupils and teachers must be tempered by the knowledge that the continuing rise in overall results hides some worrying trends. This year saw a sharp fall in the number of students taking modern language A-levels and thegap between girls' and boys' results widen still further.

The shift to a broader post-16 curriculum next year should encourage more young people to study languages for one year at least. But boys' under-performance is likely to prove a tougher nut to crack.

In opposition, Labour promised to tackle this issue, but it appears little progress has been made. More girls than boys now take A-levels and for the first time, out-perform boys at all grades.

The new vocational A-levels could help close the gap. With the decline of traditional male industries, boys need to believe that they are learning for a purpose rather than to please their teachers. And the biggest improvements in boys' results this year came in computing and business studies - subjects which are clearly linked to employment.

More still needs to be done to tackle the laddish culture which discourages academic success. But Education Secretary David Blunkett must not be swayed by his chief inspector's comments. He should tell him to spend more time improving the performance of boys, rather than denigrating students' achievements in pursuit of cheap headlines.

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