Leader: Stop all the carping and celebrate all these achievements

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The Independent Culture
FOR OUTSIDERS, the most puzzling aspect of the annual round of A-level results is the apparently inexorable rise in grades, repeated today with a 0.7 per cent increase in the pass rate and a similar one in A grades. Surely, people argue, standards must be slipping; exams must be getting easier. The middle-aged are loathe to believe that today's sixth formers are brighter and more hard-working than themselves. Employers and university dons complain that 18-year-olds leave school with good A-level grades but unable to spell or do basic maths.

The explanation for the improvement in results is not simple. A-levels have changed immeasurably both in purpose and nature since they were introduced nearly 50 years ago. Then, they were narrow and academic, designed for just 10 per cent of the population. Now, more than a third of 18-year- olds take them - a much-needed change in a nation which was peculiar in barring all but a tiny elite from higher education. Subjects such as media studies, computing and business studies are taken alongside traditional English, physics and French, and about half today's A-levels can be taken in "modules" or bite-sized chunks that can be taken more than once. These are welcome developments.

The reality is almost certainly that standards have risen in some respects and fallen slightly in others. Modern linguists may know a bit less grammar but they speak the language better. English candidates may be slightly weaker at spelling but they are more creative and analytical than their parents. Historians have to cope with original sources as well as textbooks. If there is a little grade inflation, it is a small price to pay for an increase in the proportion of young people going to university, which is so important for both individuals and the nation.

In general, however, it is clear that today's results represent a real and well-deserved achievement for both schools and pupils. Government exam advisers suggested yesterday that a 20 per cent increase in the proportion of young people from middle-class families might be one reason for the better grades. Research shows a clear connection between class and exam performance. Better teaching and learning and clearer instructions to schools about what to expect from the examination are also very important. Because of league tables and fierce competition for university places, sixth formers and schools are under greater pressure than ever before. Popular university courses now require candidates to achieve grades twice as good as they would have done 30 years ago. Some of those which then demanded two Cs now demand two As and a B.

In spite of considerable efforts, no one has succeeded in proving that standards have fallen. A series of inquiries ordered by the Government and carried out by exam advisers and the Office for Standards in Education has shown that, by and large, exams today are just as demanding as they were 20 years ago.

As Dr Ron McClone, the convenor of the exam boards' joint council, argues, more people compete in the London marathon every year and more complete it faster. That does not mean it is getting easier. In America, some studies even suggest that the IQ of the population is rising.

Recently, the chorus of complaints from the "standards are falling" critics has become more muted. The climate has changed since John Patten, the former Conservative secretary of state for education, greeted the annual rise in exam results by announcing an inquiry to decide whether standards were falling. This Government is prepared to acknowledge that schools and their pupils really do improve. Let us celebrate the achievement of pupils backed by their parents and teachers. The carping of the nostalgia brigade should be consigned to history.

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