Leading article: Time to act on A-level grades

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The Independent Online

Now that the dust has settled on this year's A-level and GCSE exams, it is worth pointing out two issues that merit urgent attention.

Now that the dust has settled on this year's A-level and GCSE exams, it is worth pointing out two issues that merit urgent attention. The first is the continuing rise in the number of 'A' grades being awarded at A-level - up from 21.6 per cent last year to 22.4 per cent this summer. As Barry Sheerman, the influential Labour chairman of the Commons select committee on education, told this newspaper the day after the results were published, it is time that the Government had a "wake-up call" on this matter. He is right to note that ministers can take action on this issue now. There is no reason to wait until Mike Tomlinson has published his reforms to the education for 14- to 19-year-olds in mid-October.

Of course, the former chief inspector of schools will have his say on the subject when he reports. He has said he is considering splitting 'A' grades at A-level into four quartiles - so university admissions staff faced with a plethora of candidates presenting themselves with 'A'-grade passes know whether each candidate is a high-flyer or has just scraped an 'A' grade. This is one way of sorting out the problem. Another is to ensure that the marks for each module of an A-level are passed on to admissions staff. There are six modules and only 5 or 6 per cent of all candidates gain grade As in all six.

The point is, though, that a decision on this matter should be reached by next summer so that university admissions staff don't have to grapple any longer with the near-impossible task of working out who is brilliant and who is merely competent. There is no need to wait until the existing A-level and GCSE system is replaced by the new diploma being advocated by Mr Tomlinson's team.

On GCSEs, the main problem highlighted this year is the growing gap between high-flyers and those towards the lower end of achievement - A* to C-grade passes increased while the overall pass rate remained the same. Here it is question of providing those struggling with the academic curriculum with a challenging alternative. The increased emphasis on work-related learning for 14- to 16-year-olds should help here - as long as what is provided is of a sufficiently high calibre.

These issues apart, it only remains for this education supplement to congratulate all the hard-working youngsters who contributed to this summer's record-breaking results.

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