'Easier A-levels' claim to be investigated

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Schools inspectors and advisers are to investigate allegations that A-level standards have fallen, it was announced yesterday.

The inquiry was proposed in April by the chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, after claims the exams were getting easier. This year 84 per cent of entries gained a pass grade compared to 77 per cent in 1990.

Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, said she had no evidence to suggest there were major problems, but she has asked the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to join schools inspectors in investigating A- level standards. They are expected to report by February.

News of the investigation came as a lecturers' union condemned new scholarships of up to pounds 1,200 for students with good GCSE grades as "bribes". Candidates with eight A-grades received letters from the new Teesside Tertiary College offering them money if they took up a place on an A-level course.

Mrs Shephard said the inquiry into the exam would work alongside a review of qualifications for 16- to 19-year-olds by Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of SCAA. It will look at standards in the exam over the past 20 years, taking into account the fact that far more people now take it. In the Fifties, 3 per cent of the population took A-level and a third failed. Now one-third of the age group takes the exam and most pass.

Mrs Shephard said: "We need to be certain that A-level is delivering the goods, and I think it is worth looking at.

"I have no evidence that there are grounds for huge concern but there is too much effort invested in this for it to be left to chance when we have the means of looking at it closely." Mrs Shephard added that ministers also wanted to find out why up to two-thirds of students taking new school- based vocational qualifications failed to complete them within the allotted time. The National Council for Vocational Qualifications was monitoring the problem with education officials, she said.

The A-level inquiry was broadly welcomed by teachers' organisations yesterday.

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said it would put to rest the persistent sniping to which A-level had been subjected in recent years.

"Students and their parents have each year faced suggestions that their results are not all they seem. That has been unfair and demoralising and has undermined the hard work of students and teachers," he said.