Education diary: A-level reforms

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Education journalists were the target of much pointed wrath at a Commons launch last week of a report on the education of 14- to 19-year-olds. In fact, Professor Steve Smith, chair of the 1994 Group (of small and beautiful universities such as Exeter and Sussex) that produced the report on the A-level reforms, was so cross that you could almost see the steam coming out of his ears.

The problem was that reporters had concentrated on the negatives – as they are wont to do. That meant great play was given to how the new A* grade could tighten the grip of independent schools on Oxbridge, and how relatively unenthusiastic university admissions tutors are about the new diplomas (62 per cent said they were likely to accept applicants with diplomas; 38 per cent said they were not).

As Professor Smith pointed out, the report covered much more than that and, unlike the journalism, was devoid of prejudice and written by an outstanding social scientist, Professor William Richardson, of Exeter's School of Education.

In case you are wondering, Professor Smith is vice-chancellor of Exeter University. He is also, incidentally, keen on the new diplomas, which he said had the potential to become "a radical alternative" to A-levels. "This is a very positive story that says diplomas will work," he said.

Standing beside him, a smiling, relaxed-looking Ed Balls engaged in some masterful spin: 62 per cent of admissions officers in favour was a pretty good figure, he said. We got no whiff of how angry he was alleged to be about coverage. What would he have done in Professor Smith's shoes – hidden the bad news? One thing is clear, however,: diplomas are a hot political potato that excite great passion and on which ministerial careers rest.

* Exeter University is certainly making its mark. Not only does it have a mover and shaker as vice-chancellor, it also won the Times Higher Education Supplement's University of the Year award. As a thank you, it decided to give all its staff a present worth £50. They could choose six bottles of wine, two bottles of champagne, fair-trade chocolate, an Alan Titchmarsh gardening book, a book by Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth, or a donation to a local homelessness charity.

Two-thirds chose booze. To the amazement of university officials, as many as 87 individuals chose Titchmarsh's The Nature of Britain. Is that a sign of the unworldliness of academics? Or is that just what the West Country does for you?

* Saturday saw the start of National Storytelling Week. Apparently, we Britons read more than one book a month, and 62 per cent regularly use a library. These are welcome statistics but come amid news that last year, more than 40 libraries closed due to budget cuts. To show your support and read stories by Anthony Horowitz (above), Rik Mayall Meera Syal and Sir Ranulph Fiennes, visit

* Today sees the launch of Amnesty International's You Can't Jail Minds competition. Students are asked to imagine how it feels to be imprisoned without access to a fair trial, and express it in a poem without the use of pen or paper. They are encouraged to take inspiration from Guantanamo Bay detainees – who are denied stationery– and use, say, loo paper or disposable cups to etch their words. Schools will run their own competition and send entries to Amnesty ( www.