Sarah Strickland asks how big a difference exam results can make in the real world
IN TEN DAYS, groups of anxious teenagers will be gathering outside schools and colleges awaiting the moment when the doors will open and their futures will be revealed.

Revisiting these scenes of sixth-formers collecting their A-level results arouses mixed emotions: the hysteria and panic is so palpable that it sets the stomach churning; there is a huge sense of relief that you are merely an observer, and an overwhelming desire to stand on a table and shout: "Don't be so ridiculous, you'll have forgotten what grades you got in 10 years." But that would be unfair.

The numbers of pupils taking A-levels is rising steadily, an increase that reflects not only a desire to avoid the dole queue, but a growing awareness of how important qualifications are these days, especially for those just starting out. Educationists agree developed societies are becoming more and more credentials-conscious. Unskilled jobs are disappearing; people's ability to earn a living depends on their skills, and the only way employers know they have them is if they have bits of paper to prove it.

For the British, who have always been rather suspicious of learning, this may have come as something of a rude awakening. According to Andy Green, senior lecturer at the Institute of Education in London, Britain still lags behind its competitors. "In France you almost can't get a job in a shop without a Baccalaureate. Britain is relatively non-credential, but it is moving that way." Students may despair at the prospects for graduates, but should bear in mind that although a degree is no guarantee of a sparkling career, it still gets them one foot further up the ladder than those without, if they are lucky enough to find a ladder.

Bridget Patterson, a sixth-form careers adviser, wrote recently in the Times Educational Supplement about her son.

Jake had dropped out of college, telling her a degree got you nowhere and you could work your way up. "Work your way up what?" she asked him. The self-made high-flier who made it to the top without exams or school achievement is a much-admired folk hero, but the truth is that these are an endangered species. Although there will always be room for the lucky and talented few to make it, we are beginning to see the last of the unqualified chief executives and trade union leaders, even pub landlords.

"It's a very long time since we had a non-graduate chairman," says Martin Duffell, head of management recruitment at Unilever. "We have a number of people at company director level who aren't graduates, but the numbers are decreasing all the time." Employers seek short cuts when recruiting, he says, and one way of doing that is to select initially by qualification. "Anything that can cut down the search process is helpful, but we still get about 4,000 applications a year from graduates. After all, they represent about 30 per cent of their age group now, and the chances of having an IQ over 120 and not having a degree are getting lower all the time."

Although qualifications serve an initial purpose in separating the sheep from the goats, some employers, including Unilever, subsequently take them with a pinch of salt. "A-level grades and degree classes are treacherous things because they are not really related to people's abilities, except in the subjects they studied," Mr Duffell says. "Some students work double the amount of time others do, rather than being brighter, and A-level results represent two people's efforts, the teacher and the student. Some employers simply ask for a certain number of A-level points and a 2:1, but that is something we have come to distrust over the years."

Unilever has used ability tests to appoint staff since 1948. According to research by Mori, commissioned by the Institute of Personnel Management, 85 per cent of organisations now use tests of some sort at some time, indicating a widespread lack of faith in traditional exam results as indicators of future performance in the workplace. If James Tooley of the Department of Educational Studies at Oxford University had his way, GCSE and A-level exams would be abolished in favour of IQ tests at 11. "It is intelligence which interests employers, then we do not need to sort students with GCSE, A-level and so on. IQ levels are far more efficient," he wrote in the June issue of the Journal of the Institute of Economic Affairs. "If it is punctuality and diligence, then letters of recommendation are more useful indicators than educational qualifications."

Dr Green is one of many who would like to see if not the abolition of exams, an overhaul of post-16 education. "Employers complain that people don't have a wide enough range of skills," he says. Ideally he would like a British version of the Baccalaureate, with students able to "pick and mix" their options, taking some academic and some vocational course modules, accumulating credits as they go along and creating their own "packages". He sees the move as gradual, but "would not be surprised if in 10 years' time there was no longer anything called A-levels".

According to Dr Green, the recent merger of the departments of Employment and Education gives an opportunity for unifying the curriculum, but there has to be political will. Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State, obviously favours a more vocational bias, but until now the Tories have been stalwart defenders of what they see as the A-level "gold standard". Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, recently issued an interim report on the future of education for the 16-19 group in which he recommended that qualifications come under one banner, so the systems are on the way to converging. About a quarter of a million students are expected to register for General National Vocational Qualifications this September: programmes include health and social care, leisure and tourism, manufacturing and information technology. Some students are combining GNVQs with A-levels, indicating a real demand for both the academic and vocational, but in practice it is difficult because of the varying nature of the courses. Universities, particularly the new ones, are already accommodating these qualifications - this year 89 per cent of GNVQ students received offers of places. Frances Raval, chairwoman of the education committee of the Secondary Heads Association and deputy head of a school in Leeds, is also keen to see "an overall qualification that combines different elements". Traditional exams are, she believes, unfair. "We all know there are students in every school to whom A-levels are not doing justice. They don't give credit to the really hard workers: some can do very little and pull it off on the day.

GNVQ students have a much clearer idea of what they have got; there is far less of this terrible sinking of the stomach on results day. A-level students often can't tell how they've done, and their whole career seems to rest on that day. GNVQs offer the skills that employers are interested in; with A-level students they don't actually know how much the student knew and didn't know."

Of course, not all employers are that quick to take new qualifications on board, and public opinion is slow to change too. Gavin Mackenzie, a consultant with the headhunters Saxton Bampfylde, says the employers his firm acts for are beginning to "stratify" universities. When they say: "You have a degree from a prestigious university", that is code for "not an ex-poly". They will give you a rough band of the universities they are interested in and sometimes will even say they are looking for an "Oxbridgey first".

Surprisingly at this level of experience, some employers still express an interest in A-level results. "We would tend not to give them, because we think it's a bit silly at this stage, but some human resources officers are almost more impressed with a good spread of A-levels - say three As in French, history and Latin - than a class 2:1 degree. A 2:1 is not as good now as it used to be 10 years ago. Exams still count!"

Most people start to leave their results off their CVs after five or six years of solid work experience, and may well have begun to forget them after ten. But that is cold comfort for today's students. Bits of paper are becoming more and more important, as even semi-skilled work in the old industries shrinks. It is particularly bad news for those young men for whom entry to the mines and shipyards once followed on from school, bringing with it confirmation of manhood and a base on which to found a marriage and a family.

Girls now outperform boys at GCSE in all subjects except physics, and new skills are often being acquired more effectively by women. The work scene has changed radically, and those who drop out of the education system early may come to regret it far more than they once did.