Can A-levels really be better?

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The Independent Online
We were told again this week that A-level standards have risen. Has the educational establishment pulled off its annual conjuring trick? Far more children of lower abilities are taking these exams, but we are expected to believe that they are more likely to succeed than when only an elite group of the most academic students took A-levels. What I, employers and the Chief Inspector of Schools want to know is can these claims be believed? Or are the rising standards simply an illusion?

In the old days, when we had the higher school certificate, the Northern Matriculation Board kept its old examination scripts. Every five, 10 or 20 years they were sent out to the markers, so that there could be a general comparison. That way there was no doubt that standards of marking were constant. But now we are told that there are no old scripts available for comparisons. The evidence has been destroyed that could have told us what we need to know - whether an A-level certificate is still a meaningful qualification.

I would also question the new modular examinations that seem to be growing in popularity. These involve taking a six-week course in the middle of your A-levels, then taking an exam at the end of this. If you pass, then it counts towards your A-level - and if you fail, you just take the module again. How does this live up to the old ideal, by which you studied for two years, mastered and remembered a body of knowledge and recalled it in the all-important exams? Modules are a useless way of testing a pupil's ability to retain and understand facts, and this is reflected in the sort of subjects for which they are used - media studies, photography, psychology, sports studies and the like. By all means teach these subjects and issue qualifications - but don't call them A-levels.

It is important to challenge the orthodoxy of the education world and this is a prime example. Much evidence from employers suggests that schools still produce many poorly educated employees with certificates they cannot trust. It is unfair to the children themselves, who are having to work harder to get into a real university, now that our higher education system has been messed up to create hundreds of institutions with widely different standards.

I would suggest a thorough assessment of our A-level standards, and a proper comparison with the equivalent exams done by 18-year-olds elsewhere in the world. Let's see what German teenagers have to master in foreign languages or maths - will our A-levels stand the comparison?

I don't mean to detract from the achievements of pupils who have done well this year, but it is in their own interests that we ascertain whether the grades they are proud of are truly the achievements they should be.

The Conservative government has made the national curriculum workable. It must bring the same reality to higher education.

The writer is Conservative MP for Brent North.