Tories to cut A-level pass rate to boost confidence in exams system

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The Independent Online

The restoration of confidence is one of the top priorities for the Conservatives' new commission on public services and that, according to Baroness Perry, the former chief inspector of schools, can only be achieved with a much tougher attitude towards marking on behalf of the examination boards. "It's really rather sad," she said. "At my former university, Cambridge, two or three faculties are setting their own tests again because they have lost confidence in A-levels. You get a C in A-level maths with just 18 per cent of the marks. You have to bear down on the examination boards."

Such a move would make it harder to obtain an A grade andthat could mean the incoming government presiding over the first fall in top grade passes in more than 20 years. The commission, though, is charged with making sure the exams system has the confidence of parents, pupils, employers and universities. At present, she argues, it does not.

That is just one priority of the commission - which covers health, social services and social housing as well as education - she co-chairs with the Conservative MP Stephen Dorrell.

It is also looking at growth areas in public services. Traditionally, Conservative governments are associated with spending cuts. Baroness Perry acknowledges the subject "might surprise some people".

"No government in the past century has presided over anything but more money going into the public services," she said. "When I was chief inspector, Margaret Thatcher was in power and it is true that, in both the Thatcher years and the Major years, public spending went up in just the same way as it did before. There has been a reduction in expansion which has been interpreted as cuts in spending - but that's not the same thing."

One of the growth areas the commission is looking at is "equity of access" to schools - that parents from underprivileged backgrounds have just as good a chance of getting their children into the better performing schools as those from well-off homes.

The present education legislation does not go far enough, she says. Schools will retain the concept of catchment areas with local authorities having a vital say in admissions policies.

Under the Conservatives, the extra money will be spent on ensuring that all families can choose to send their children further afield to school - although exactly how this will work has not been decided.

The commission still has 18 months to run before it comes up with its final conclusions. It will be publishing policy options in the summer with a series of conferences in the autumn.

Sir Mike Tomlinson, a former chief inspector of schools, has been drafted in. He chaired a government inquiry into the examination system under Labour whose recommendation that the current GCSE and A-level system be replaced with a diploma covering vocational and academic qualifications was overruled by ministers.

Baroness Perry is adamant that restoring the morale of teachers will be at the heart of any recommendations that the commission makes. "This must be an essential key to improving public services," she said. "They are hidebound with bureaucracy, externally set targets and public naming and shaming. We need to look to ways of allowing teachers to become creative again." She said that was likely to mean schools being encouraged to devise strategies for improving standards.