Comment: The timetable should rule out elitism

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The Independent Online
This morning a familiar scene is being played out in sixth-form blocks all over the country. Everywhere, nervous groups of 18- year-olds are waiting at their schools to receive the envelopes that contain their futures. There will be tears of joy and of bitter disappointment. Some students will sink to the floor in relief or despair; others will rush home to spread the good news or to lick their wounds in private. There can be few places in England where such extremes of emotion are being displayed today.

These scenes have barely changed in the 45 years since A-levels were first introduced, but in fact almost everything else about them is different. In 1951, less than five per cent of 18-year-olds took the exams, and one in three failed. Now a third take them and six out of seven pass. In the Fifties about 30,000 people went to university each year; this autumn 290,000 will do so. With so many more people taking these exams, common sense would suggest that the pass rate should have gone down. After all, when only the very brightest took them they must have had a better chance of getting through, one might argue. But common sense is not always right.

At first glance it does appear curious that the pass rates have continued to go up while the staying-on rates have grown, but there is no disputing the figures. In 1968 the A-level pass rate was 65 per cent, while today it has risen to 86 per cent. Not surprisingly, this has led to anguished cries from the traditionalist end of the political spectrum about falling standards. Those who would like to see the education system frozen in its Fifties incarnation argue that we are devaluing our qualifications by allowing more and more people to pass.

To some extent, they are right. Some education academics believe that expansion may have caused a gradual change in examiners' perceptions of who should pass and who should fail. A candidate whose entry appeared only average among a narrow, elite group could appear very good among a much wider range of abilities. Although there has not been any grand conspiracy, the rapid rise in the pass rate - almost two per cent this year - is probably due in part to these incremental pressures.

But before we throw up our hands in horror and call for tighter codes of conduct for examiners, or even demand the nationalisation of the exam boards, we should think carefully about what we want from our examinations system. Ten years ago a policy decision was taken to expand the higher education system so that the proportion of people going to university would be closer to our economic rivals'. There are some die-hard elitists who hanker for the old days when only a select and tiny band trooped off to college, while the rest got on in the university of life. But fortunately they are few: the right decision was to expand the numbers in higher education, not only because it is socially proper for the widest possible range of people to have the opportunity to achieve their full potential, but also because we need a developed workforce. The market for unskilled labour is shrinking, and, without a highly qualified workforce, Britain will not be able to compete. There is no going back.

If we are ready to accept that our education system should aim to widen access rather than exclude all but a tiny proportion from its upper echelons, we must have an exam system to match. A-levels designed for a tiny proportion of students would be completely inappropriate in the 1990s. So, naturally and gradually, they have changed to meet the demands of the modern system.

Apart from the fact that numbers have increased, teaching methods in universities have changed beyond recognition. A-levels have adapted accordingly. In some subjects they have been broken down into modules that are examined separately rather than through a final exam, and as a result they fit more closely to the short-course approach that is used in universities. Even if such changes have allowed A-levels to become marginally easier, is that necessarily such a bad thing? At the moment 17 per cent of those who start a course still drop out, and a further 15 per cent fail. No exam system is working properly if it automatically consigns a third of its candidates to the scrap heap.

But broadening the scope of A-levels is not enough. We need to measure and accredit students' achievements rather than setting up hurdles that only a small proportion can jump.

There are other university entrance exams. Plans to extend special papers for the very brightest pupils are already afoot, and vocational A-levels are already in place in large numbers of schools. Many mature students win places by taking access courses set up for those without conventional qualifications. Instead of trying to hold on to the past, traditionalists should throw their support behind these exams. Efforts are being made to update the A-level points system so that all students' achievements can count towards university entrance. They should be applauded and encouraged (as well as closely scrutinised). Regarding them with automatic suspicion is no help at all.

At the heart of the annual row over A-level standards is a deep-seated elitism which is hard to shake. Even those who publicly support the principle of access for all are less sure in their hearts that they really want it. But the fact is that education is becoming broader and more diverse, and that trend is not going to be reversed. If the examinations system is not allowed to catch up, it will look increasingly like a throwback to the 1950s.