Are results too good to be true?

Improved exam grades appear to be a cause for celebration. But, asks Richard Cairns, do they point to a genuine rise in standards?
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The Independent Online

In 1991, only two schools in Britain could boast that 80 per cent of their upper-sixth formers had gained As and Bs at A-level. This year more than 30 could make the claim. Ten years ago, 57 per cent of A-level grades at Magdalen College School, Oxford, were at A or B; by last year this had risen to an astonishing 80 per cent.

At GCSE in the same period, the percentage of grades at A or A* jumped from 50 to 75 per cent. While the Magdalen experience may be unusual in scale, it is clearly part of a wider national picture. Last month Mike Tomlinson, in his first report as chief inspector of schools, praised the rise in attainment of pupils in maintained secondary schools, as measured by the proportion of pupils achieving five A-C grades at GCSE.

Sceptics on the educational right have seized on this as evidence of so-called grade inflation, the consequence of a conspiracy between teachers, exam boards and the Government to dilute standards, rather than face up to the need to restore rigour and discipline to a failing educational system. They cite some worrying findings: the electronics department at York University, which has been giving the same maths test for the last 15 years and has seen average test scores of those with A or B grades in A-level Maths fall from 78 per cent to 54 per cent; the Encyclopaedia Britannica survey, which revealed that three-quarters of 15- to 24-year-olds knew neither the significance of D-Day, nor that Richard III was a 15th-century monarch; and the report from Leicester University, suggesting that 500 trainee teachers did not know the different parts of speech and were uncertain about their grammar.

But we should be wary of focusing exclusively on surveys that examine areas that are no longer addressed in schools. No curriculum can afford to stand still – it evolves to meet the needs and values of a changing society. It is, of course, incumbent on government to introduce change only when the intellectual case for so doing is compelling – and I profess to being personally worried that this is not always so – but change there must be and, with each new subject, another must (often painfully) give way.

What is most surprising about the current debate is that we should be surprised that levels of attainment, as measured by public-examination results, are rising. It would be incredible if this was not the case. Teachers are working harder than ever before. A recent study by PricewaterhouseCoopers demonstrated that "teachers and headteachers work more intensive weeks than other comparable managers and professionals" and that schools are "driven by a desire for high quality not always balanced by a need to ensure sustainable workloads". Schools are also better funded than ever before: DfES statistics show average, real-terms funding per pupil rising by £540 to £3,520 between 1997-8 and 2001-02. And then there are the league tables. It is a brave (and probably doomed) school that chooses to ignore them. Most have no option but to focus on the specific task of improving grades at GCSE, AS and A2. And improve they have, the product of government reform, government money and the remarkable dedication of a much-maligned profession.

The writer is usher (deputy head) of Magdalen College School, Oxford