Better-off pupils boost exam passes

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The Independent Online
AN INCREASE in the proportion of young people from middle-class families is a major reason for annual improvements in exam results, Government advisers believe.

Thousands of A-level students will receive their results tomorrow, and GCSE grades will be published next week.

Results for both examinations have improved steadily for more than a decade, leading to accusations that exam standards are slipping.

This year, GCSE results in Northern Ireland and results for Scottish Highers - the Scottish equivalent of A-levels - have shown improvements.

Officials from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority attribute the rise in exam passes to better teaching and to demographic changes. An example of the latter is the 20 per cent increase in the proportion of 16-year-olds from higher-income homes over the past 10 years. Such pupils tend to do better in exams than those from poorer families.

Professor Alan Smithers, of Liverpool University, said: "The growing proportion of young people from higher-income homes is certainly one factor. More parents have been to university themselves and more are likely to encourage their own children to go.

"But it is not the only factor. In the Fifties only 10 per cent of people went to university. Now more than 50 per cent go at some time in their lives. A-level has changed to cope with this.

"Until 1982, there was a ceiling of 70 per cent on the number of people who could pass. Now you can take the exam stage by stage in modules and you have a better chance of accumulating good grades."

The rise in the A-level pass rate last year was the smallest for a decade. However, there was a sharp rise in those achieving the highest grade, making the competition for university places as fierce as ever.

In a new initiative, 10,000 A-level candidates will have the chance to see their marked exam papers tomorrow. The Government is trying out a scheme that allows pupils and teachers to inspect marked scripts for both A-level and GCSE.

Previously, even candidates who appealed against their grades were forbidden from seeing their scripts.

David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, has said that he wants the exam system to be more transparent and hopes that all candidates will be able to see their scripts from next year.

Ministers hope the scheme will reduce the number of appeals, which has been rising. Last year there were 10,991 A-level appeals involving 17,800 candidates, about 2.3 per cent of all entries. Grades were changed for 9 per cent of these.

For GCSE there were 14,923 appeals involving 29,129 candidates. Schools can lodge an appeal on behalf of more than one candidate.

In New Zealand, where exam candidates have been able to see their scripts for the past decade, the number of appeals has fallen.

There were also fewer appeals in Ireland last year, when candidates were entitled to see their scripts for the first time.

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