The myth of educational golden days

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The Independent Online
If educational standards are falling, they have been falling for a very long time, an exam board suggested yesterday.

Tired of the annual round of complaints that GCSE and A-level exams are not what they were, the Associated Examining Board produced evidence that the cry of "standards are falling" goes back for nearly 140 years.

The GCSE, say the critics, is a doddle compared with its predecessor, the O-level. Yet, the board points out, in 1985, during the golden days of O-level four out of a group of 20 well-qualified trainee travel agents thought that Manchester was in Scotland.

One thought that Killarney was in Greece. On average, the group had six good O-levels each.

In the same year, British Midland Airways complained to the board that the most common error among its trainee reservation staff was that Bangkok was in Hong Kong and Brussels in Amsterdam.

Complaints by examiners and employers that young people cannot spell, punctuate or write grammatically are scarcely new.

In 1931, the Junior County Scholarship Examination Report listed "tow" (two), "twelf", "fivety", "houndred" and "severn" as commonly misspelt numbers.

"Spelling will always be a source of much trouble in our language," said the report. "There was much confusion over such words as 'steel' and 'steal', 'wring' and 'ring', 'alms' and 'arms', 'Wales' and 'Whales', 'rays' and 'raise' ... 'It's' (the pronoun) was almost universally so spelt, though not greatly to the surprise of those who constantly receive letters subscribed 'Your's sincerely'."

And if schools are blamed today for not teaching grammar, the critics are following in a long tradition. In 1858, examiners protested that "the principles of Grammar as exhibited in the English Language are not made a matter of systematic study in our schools".

The examining board's director responsible for liaising with industry, George Turnbull, said: "Almost 140 years later we hear the same comment from those who should know better. It's time they stopped making a drama where there is no crisis - other than the one that has always been with us.

"These examples illustrate that it was ever thus, and though we should always strive to improve, the euphoric glow of past grandeur and excellence in education must remain a figment of a fertile imagination."