Minister brands A-level critics 'elitist'

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The Independent Online

Critics who claimed that A-Levels have been dumbed down were guilty of denigrating hard-working children from Middle England, school standards minister David Miliband declared today.

Critics who claimed that A-Levels have been dumbed down were guilty of denigrating hard-working children from Middle England, school standards minister David Miliband declared today.

He condemned those who said that rising pass rates meant that standards were slipping as elitists who wanted to hang on to the "old order".

And he accused them of peddling the "myth" that only a few were brainy enough to do well.

Results published on Thursday are expected to show the pass rate has edged closer to 100 per cent in what would be the 22nd consecutive annual rise.

Last year, 95.4 per cent of A-Level entries passed and the proportion awarded A-grades increased 0.9 per cent to 21.6 per cent.

In 2003 headteachers said sixth formers, with an eye on getting into university, were increasingly opting out of the hard subjects such as maths, physics and modern languages in favour of "soft" courses such as psychology and media studies.

David Thomas, chief executive of the Careers Research Advisory Centre said last weekend that while standards had risen in secondary schools, they had not done so by nearly enough to justify the soaring pass rates seen in recent years.

But Mr Miliband, in a speech at a summer school for gifted and talented pupils at Imperial College in London, said he would be arguing that A-Level success emanated from Middle England.

That was the same territory that many of the exam's critics thought they were speaking for, he implied.

The number of students who passed at least two A-Levels had gone up from 78,000 to 240,000 over the past 30 years, Mr Miliband said.

Those who believed standards had fallen thought that only an elite was able to do well, regardless of the improvements in teaching identified by education watchdog Ofsted.

"Today I want to put the debate about exams in its proper context. The context of myths about education that mark out this country - myths that feed a culture where 'too clever by half' is a good put-down, where 'boffin' is a term of abuse.

"Myths that stand in the way of the progress for hard-working pupils and families for whom education is a one-off chance to break into the winners' circle, myths that put up barriers of birth - not merit - to the rise of hard-working pupils from all over the country."

Mr Miliband went on: "I have a challenge to the myth makers who talk down educational achievement every summer.

"When the facts say teaching standards are rising, when the facts confirm the rigour of tests and exams, when the facts show that the growth in pupils doing well comes from Middle England families, the only conclusion we can draw when commentators talk of dumbing down is that they believe pupils from Middle England families have neither the brains nor the talent to do well."

Mr Miliband went on: "So my message is simple - stop saying pupils from Middle England families lack the brains to do well.

"Stop saying to the children of those who have not gone to university in the past that there is a charmed circle of educational achievement and it has big Keep Out signs all around it."

Today, Mr Miliband insisted that the improving A-Level results were down to better teaching and greater efforts by students.

He said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "You could only conclude that there had been a reduction in standards if there was some evidence to show that. But independent studies have gone into the papers in real detail and they have not found evidence of dumbing down.

"When the evidence shows that there is no suggestion of dumbing down, I am forced to conclude that those who are simply knocking the efforts of young people and their schools and teachers are falling for the old British disease of knocking success, of hating success."

Mr Miliband was asked what he meant by saying that critics should cease suggesting that pupils from Middle England do not have the brains to do well.

Mr Miliband said: "We know that 30 years ago about 10-12 per cent of the cohort got 2 A-Levels. We are now up to 40-45 per cent. And we know exactly who those pupils are.

"They predominantly come from families where no one has been to university before. There are significantly more girls - 30 years ago girls were doing worse than boys and now they are doing better.

"They come from families where the parents have wanted their children to have opportunities that they never had, and those pupils are grasping those opportunities with both hands.

"I think people, when they talk about Middle England, are talking about people who are coming from right across the country but are those who have not been part of an elite before, have not had a university education, and who are grasping their chances to develop their own potential."

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