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Turbulent times when only A grades will do

One explanation for Gordon Brown's unexpected popularity as Prime Minister is that expectations were so low. All he has to do is appear in a sober suit and tie and imply that he will do his best to sort out the mess left by his predecessor and we treat him like Churchill.

I wonder how I can adapt these tactics in an exam-taking household. Up until the exam is taken, one must not recognise limitations in children. If they revise hard, read the question, pace themselves, they can "achieve their dreams". This is the Blairite scenario. Once the exam is over, what's done is done. You hope for the best and prepare for the worst. This is Mr Brown's way of doing things.

It is difficult to manage expectations among the current generation because of exam inflation. In previous years, some solid Bs were respectable; now As are the norm.

These are the weeks in which newspaper picture desks trawl schools looking for the prettiest girls with the best results. Pictures are supplemented with a few case studies often relatives or friends of press executives. I recall digging up the son of a friend who was taking A-levels. He was bright and went to an academic school, so he seemed a safe bet for a "before and after". He entered risky territory by saying he would not be discriminated against because of his academic privilege. Then his results were slightly disappointing: an A and two Bs and he was forced to confront (relative) university catastrophe. Worse, the Sunday broadsheets contacted him and urged him to plead class victimhood. Sensibly, he did no such thing and ended up reading a different subject at another university, where he has become a passionate left-wing idealist.

The imperative of As does not prepare students for interesting surprises. Telling a disappointed A-level pupil that things sometimes work out for the best is of no immediate comfort. Naive educationists and politically cynical education ministers believed that increasing the volume of A grades would do away with disappointment. This has proved not to be the case. Some students succeed and some fail, however you set the grades it's just that failure is now anything less than an A.

Pupils at academic schools waited for this week's GCSE results with alarm, knowing that they could be booted out if they did not achieve a string of A*s. Expectations climb ever higher. An Eton pupil called Marius Ostrowski was featured in The Sunday Times for achieving 10 A grades at A-level. He took this extraordinary number to differentiate himself from the other A-graders. And he took hard subjects maths, languages, Latin, Greek, economics.

If pupils return to languages and sciences, it will not be thanks to the Government but because the market requires it. Social and political engineering is no match for the demands of multi-nationals. The lesson of exam inflation is that you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. We may try to manage teenagers' highs and lows, but the turbulence will hit them anyway.

Sarah Sands is a former editor of 'The Sunday Telegraph'

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