Leading article: A-levels may be useful, but they are not that important

A-LEVEL RESULTS are out, greeted by the usual shouts of exultation and tears of dismay. Those whose results have turned out fine will be beaming to themselves in the bosom of their families and receiving advice not to gloat in front of less fortunate peers, while parents and older siblings cast their minds back to their own exam results, and give thanks that it is no longer them under the lens.

Yet every year the same questions are asked: are A-levels less valuable than they were? Has their currency been diminished somehow by the large number of people who take them? Is it easier to get an A in a given subject now than it was 10 years ago?

It is impossible to know the truth - education is one of those subjects that everyone has an opinion on, because we've all had first-hand experience. Even educational experts clash over interpretation.

But the question should be: does it matter? All this breast-beating about the same corny old questions takes place largely because the subject is picked up like an old football, and kicked around each year when there is little else going on in the news.

The A-level system, as it stands, is useful for measuring students in relation to each other for the purposes of university intake. This is the main reason for its existence. But, by definition, the point of an education is not purely to pass exams. School and university are also there to equip you for life in the broadest possible terms: to teach you how to learn, tell you about the world, provide a moral framework, afford the opportunity of empathy for those with whom you apparently have nothing in common (other people) and, heavens!, even allow you to start seeking something called "the truth". Esoteric, but maybe those ancient Greeks had a point that still stands after all these centuries.

Exam results are important, of course. We all know this instinctively, because at some point we are all judged by them. But they are a narrow way of gauging a person's ability and certainly not the only, or best, way of doing it. (Though if five subjects instead of three, as in Scottish Highers, were the national norm, this would be less true.) Anyone whose results were disappointing should take heart from the knowledge that many captains of industry, politicians, and even journalists, got rotten A- level results. The key thing - whether you are disappointed or wildly successful - is to see them largely as an indication of ability to pass exams, and not a judgement passed down on your personal worth - certainly not a prophesy about how the rest of your life will turn out. Nothing is set in stone; there is no script.

But why are so many people so preoccupied by "whither A-levels?"? Sure, more good grades are given out now just because education has been vastly expanded and more people take the exams. Things change. And OK, there does seem to be a generation of people, educated during the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, whose spelling and grammar is not quite up to old grammar- school standards. But these things go in cycles. It is often forgotten that the previous expansion of university education after the Second World War also uncovered notable problems in this area.

You can guarantee, though, that if the boot were on the other foot, and a group of experts agreed that A-levels were harder now than in the past, a vocal few would first refuse to believe it, then come up with an explanation that justified the need to raise standards in order to protect the worth of their own qualifications.

The yearly discussion of A-levels, as "benchmarks" and "gold standards", degenerates into an ill-tempered display of nostalgia for barely-remembered youth. Why not devote that energy to rethinking the structure of the teaching profession, or figuring out how to woo middle class kids and their families back to the state sector instead - in fact, do something creative?

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?