Last week, during a brief jaunt with nine old university pals on the lovely Hebridean island of Islay, my wife left a message on my mobile phone to say that my mother had called in a state of breathless excitement to report that her great-niece, the youngest of my cousin's four daughters, had received fantastic GCSE results: nine starred As and an A.
These are indeed fantastic results, and everyone is very proud of her (I don't want to cause embarrassment by naming her, so I'll call her Alison). However, Alison is not considered the freakish prodigy she would have been 25 summers ago when I took my O-levels. In fact, at South Hampstead, the high-achieving girls' school in north London, her results were not even especially unusual. Several of her friends did even better, obtaining 10 starred As, and she has asked for her miserable unstarred A to be remarked, out of curiosity rather than arrogance: it was in history, which is her favourite subject.
Call me jaundiced, as one who mustered merely seven O-levels (two As, two Bs, and three Cs, which would have been about as welcome at South Hampstead School as The Fast Show's randy 13th Duke of Wymborne), but isn't it the responsibility of schools and for that matter exam boards to turn out individuals with manifestly different strengths? The only school that should welcome a string of starred As from a string of pupils is Stepford High.
There is little evidence to show that teaching standards have got better, but plenty to show that exams have got easier, and that dishing out starred As like so much confetti merely devalues the currency. This evening, a fascinating televised experiment reaches its conclusion. The Channel 4 series That'll Teach 'Em invited a bunch of highly-rated 16-year-olds from the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire - all of whom were expected to score mostly As in their GCSEs - to sit 1950s O-level papers in conditions replicating a 1950s state boarding school.
Their results are broadcast in tonight's final episode, and are thoroughly revealing. Most of the youngsters failed maths altogether, and about half of them flunked history. As for young Alison, her eminently sensible mother, while quite properly proud, is under no illusions that she has on her hands a combination of David Starkey, Germaine Greer and Stephen Hawking. A couple of weeks ago, my cousin reports, the family sat down to watch the film A Bridge Too Far, which features several scenes in which German soldiers speak German. Apart from the occasional "Achtung!" and "Gott im Himmel!", Alison didn't have a clue what they were on about without reading the subtitles. Yet German was one of the subjects in which she scored a starred A. Gott im Himmel about sums it up.
So, to mix GCSE subjects, something is badly wrong in the state of Denmark. Exams clearly need to be made harder, thereby illuminating, for their own benefit, pupils' strengths and weaknesses. That said, impressionable teenagers can feel stigmatised for life by having their academic weaknesses illuminated. Recently, my wife and I visited the secondary school which we hope our 10-year-old daughter will attend. As the headmaster showed us into the chemistry lab, my wife, who like me was good at arts subjects, and utterly discombobulated by the sciences, whispered to me: "If I see a periodic table I might throw up."
On the other hand, everyone should experience abject failure in at least one exam; it is an important rite of passage, and it doesn't half produce some good anecdotes, of which my all-time favourite concerns my old schoolfriend Rob Waggett, who reeled out of our General Studies A-level moaning loudly about a set of questions which related to an attached railway timetable and map of the (distant) West of England. A typical question was on the lines of the following: which would be quicker, travelling from Swindon to Exeter by train on the 08.03 via Bristol Temple Meads, assuming it departs and arrives eight minutes late, or by motorway assuming an average speed of 70mph, but with a 23-minute hold-up near Taunton?
"Those questions about getting from Swindon to Exeter were bloody impossible," complained Rob. I pointed out that I hadn't found them too bad, after scrutinising the timetable and map. He looked aghast. "What timetable," he said. "What bloody map?"
The starred-A grade pupils of today will have no such memories, will never know what it is to scrape a C in maths (as I did after intensive extra tuition), and the loss, I contend, is theirs. It is also worth noting that of my nine old friends on Islay last week, all went to a good university (St Andrews), all hold well-rewarded and in several cases powerful jobs, yet none managed more than a handful of As in their O-levels and some managed no As at all. Do good results in O-levels/GCSEs ultimately matter in life? Discuss.