A joint study by schools inspectors and exam officials, due to be completed by the autumn, will say there is not enough evidence to show whether or not grades have drifted upwards in the past 20 years. The investigation was announced last year by Chris Woodhead, chief inspector of schools and head of the school inspection body Ofsted, and approved by Gillian Shephard, the education secretary. It was due to be published earlier, but was delayed because students' exam scripts had not been kept.
There have also been suggestions, officially denied, that Mr Woodhead has commissioned his own inquiry by Ofsted inspectors working independently.
Mrs Shephard had already delivered a sharp warning that pupils' results should not be damaged by allegations of "grade inflation". At a briefing last week, she said that any improvement in this year's grades should be credited to hard work by students rather than to lower standards.
Her remarks reflect growing tension between officials. The Authority claims that it is impossible to prove whether exams are getting easier, while Mr Woodhead is irritated by the impasse - a possible explanation for the separate inquiry he is rumoured to be pursuing.
Last night Sheila Lawlor, director of the right-wing think-tank Politeia, said the exam system should be reformed so that standards could be ensured over time. "The pressure will be on Mrs Shephard to reflect the interests of her department and of the education establishment, which has maintained all along that high marks mean high standards," she said. A spokesman for Ofsted said that no separate research was planned, and a spokesman for the Department for Education and Employment said that the joint report had not been commissioned by Mrs Shephard. "This is not a government inquiry. Work is still continuing," he said.
As long ago as 1977, a parliamentary committee criticised exam boards for failing to keep scripts and said that they should be stored so that standards could be checked in the future.
tReading standards among British nine-year-olds are lower than those in Finland and the US, according to a study of 1,800 pupils by the National Foundation for Educational Research. But British children scored higher than average in a survey of literacy in 29 countries, scoring 507 points against an average of 500, though the spread of results was wider: the highest-achieving pupils in England and Wales did better than those in most other countries, while the weakest 25 per cent did substantially worse.Reuse content