Leader: Hardy perennial will sprout again

August 20, 2004

The annual exchanges on the dumbing down of A levels started so early this year that the pundits may be too bored with the subject to summon up outrage at the 0.8 per cent increase in top grades announced today. That, presumably, was exam officials' intention in encouraging speculation that pass rates were going to rise again. The boards' description of an extra 16,000 A grades as a "slight increase" may have been stretching credibility, but anything that helps hasten the end of this tired summer ritual must be welcome.

Perhaps if the arguments did not rage at the very time most calculated to take the shine off candidates' hard-earned achievements, it would be possible to have a rational debate. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has considered staggering the release of results, or announcing pass rates later in the year, which might help. But ministers cannot pretend that "myth-makers" are solely responsible for the concerns, especially when the Government is proposing to reform the whole system.

Rigorous research by academics and more anecdotal evidence from employers do not chime with constantly rising grades.

Survey after survey, in The Times Higher and elsewhere, suggests that today's students are less well-prepared for higher education than their predecessors. Not less intelligent, but certainly not one grade better at their subject than their counterparts of 20 years ago. That is not, as David Miliband, the School Standards Minister, claims, to subscribe to the belief that "pupils from Middle England haven't got the brains to do well".

It is to raise legitimate questions about the curriculum and assessment at sixth-form level and below. The Tomlinson inquiry may provide the answers, although powerful voices are likely to oppose the overarching diploma that will be the favoured alternative to A level. But any new system will struggle to serve the growing pool of A-level candidates while offering the intellectual challenge necessary to identify the very best candidates for elite universities. More students do not mean a worse higher education system, but they will not all be as academically accomplished at entry as their highly selected predecessors.

To expect one examination to serve this broader clientele while stretching the highest fliers may be unrealistic. The latest interim solution put forward is to select students on AS-level module scores. But this would encourage even more sixthformers to retake subjects, as well as penalising students with perfectly good A levels. If the practical problems can be overcome, a post-qualification admissions system still seems the only reliable selection tool. No such easy answer is available for the other concerns surrounding A levels.

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