One exam for the rich...

How has Euan Blair's school been able to escape the pain of the troubled new AS-levels, asks Anne McHardy
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The Independent Online

He looked harmless enough, standing there all embarrassed in his neat suit. So why did the sight of Euan Blair sharing his father's glory last week have me spitting tacks?

Simple. The thought that Euan, at 17, must be suffering the agonies of the AS-levels that have my household in torment, and that therefore the very heart of government must understand what a complete cock-up they are, was the one thing keeping me sane. What woeful ignorance.

Come Friday morning, I bumped into a neighbour. The conversation turned to the election. "I dragged myself off to bed at 2am." "Me too." And then it turned to the absolutely inevitable. Her oldest has his UCAS offer. His A-levels are under way. "I couldn't get him to bed and it's biology today," she said.

"What," said I, "was Euan Blair doing up so late last night? He must have AS-levels."

"No. Didn't you see? Oratory is opting to ignore AS-levels and do them with A-levels next June."

Suddenly, apart from seeing RED, I saw a pattern. No wonder Tony Blair can bang on about education with such conviction.

Last week a guru who advised the introduction of AS-levels rang to say that he understood the angst of parents such as myself, although he felt a number of "urban myths" were being put about. We must remember the purpose behind AS-levels, he said.

They were intended as a real access widener, getting rid of outmoded subjects, bringing sixth-form education within the grasp of the many.

Much of the pain, he said, was due to schools' failure properly to reflect the flexibility that the creators had intended. Most of the syllabus was not compulsory. It was perfectly possible to treat the whole thing as modular A-levels. And most of the criticism, he said, was coming from selective and independent schools who were expert at teaching A-levels. They did not want their comfortable world shattered by gate- opening for the unwashed. I empathised.

And there we have it. The privileged world of the Blairs can immunise itself against education reform. That may sound like sour grapes; maybe it is. The Blairs' sort of privilege, as the likes of Baroness Jay personify, does come in handy later.

But my children are not without access, having two parents with degrees. And their decent obscurity, which cloaks adolescent indiscretions, has counterbalancing merits, as Euan Blair no doubt understands.

What matters about the complete isolation from the harsher realities that young Euan typifies is that the Government can believe that it is making improvements because it never properly has to see what is happening.

Widening access and modernising education are worthy aims. But widening access has to work from middle up as well as middle down. Even if the current mess is sorted, while some can opt out of AS-levels, which means one A-level for the rich and one for the rest ­ which in turn will inevitably mean that the "better" universities opt for the richer version ­ the reform will only widen the educational class divide.

The one glimmer of hope is the speed with which Estelle Morris announced an inquiry. That suggests that 18 years of teaching in the inner city might have put her on the same planet as the rest of us.