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You've got to agree it's getting better all the time

The news of higher pass rates atA-level has called forth the usual spate of lamentation for the loss of the "gold standard", and educationists have as usual been highly ambiguous in their own defence. Surely, this is strange. Is it only in education that improving performance is immediately suspected of being due to falling standards?

For example, most trains now travel from London to Leicester in under two hours: does this mean that 100 miles is no longer the respectable distance it was in the good old days? Certainly not. And we certainly don't hear railway managers nervously defending their achievements against this form of attack. Why, then, can't educational performances be agreed to be simply getting better? Why can we believe that we are getting better at transportation, but not at teaching?

The answer lies in a damaging ambiguity at the heart of education. If educational results are seen as identifying a rank order within a fixed pool of "ability", if examination success is seen as due to the fixed ability of the individual candidate, then indeed improved results can never mean more than a loss of sensitivity in the ranking process. But if education is seen as facilitating attainment in relation to specified tasks, then indeed we (teachers) ought to expect to improve.

Let us, then, as a profession, take a stand against the notion of fixed ability - it can be a useful alibi when our results are disappointing, but by the same token it destroys our ability to claim success. (The point is well made in your editorial, "Tweaking the tail", August 16.) If we insist that education is a learning process rather than a selection process, we can then at least insist on claiming recognition for our successes, even if it means we have to take responsibility for our failures. Like any other profession.

RICHARD WINTER

Professor of education

Anglia Polytechnic University

East Road

Cambridge

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