David Miliband vs the German show-jumping team: no contest

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The Independent Online

As a spectator sport, this year's punch-up over A-level results did nothing to disturb the hypnotising hold of the Olympics. The young challenger, David Miliband, bounced into the ring before the bell was even rung, and launched a fierce attack on the peddlers of the myth of dumbing down - only to find that his opponents hadn't bothered to turn up. When the results were published, the Daily Mail celebrated the achievements of youngsters, while the Conservative spokesman, Tim Collins, was reduced to grumbling about pupils being allowed to resit modules until they get a grade with which they are happy. What? Was that it? Was that the annual crisis over grade inflation? Let's see if there's a proper bun-fight about whether a German showjumper crossed the line twice on the other channel, shall we?

As a spectator sport, this year's punch-up over A-level results did nothing to disturb the hypnotising hold of the Olympics. The young challenger, David Miliband, bounced into the ring before the bell was even rung, and launched a fierce attack on the peddlers of the myth of dumbing down - only to find that his opponents hadn't bothered to turn up. When the results were published, the Daily Mail celebrated the achievements of youngsters, while the Conservative spokesman, Tim Collins, was reduced to grumbling about pupils being allowed to resit modules until they get a grade with which they are happy. What? Was that it? Was that the annual crisis over grade inflation? Let's see if there's a proper bun-fight about whether a German showjumper crossed the line twice on the other channel, shall we?

The pre-emptive strike by Miliband, the schools minister, was a smart political manoeuvre. Every August, the field is left clear for reactionary columnists to set the tone of reporting, not only of the A-level results, but of the test scores at ages seven, 11 and 14, that are to be published tomorrow, and of Thursday's GCSE results, too. The summer mood music tends, therefore, to be an elegy for a lost age of golden standards, qualifications that were worth the paper they were printed on, and graduates who could spell. This year, the other side of the argument was at least put forcefully - and first.

Nor was Miliband's coup just a matter of spin. Public relations works only if it goes with the grain of opinion. Although most people probably do prefer the comfort of believing that educational standards are falling in this country, they do not actually think that the young people they know are worse educated than their parents. My guess is that most people think that improving exam results is the product of a combination of lower standards and better teaching.

The evidence suggests that better teaching, which includes better knowledge of how to get pupils through exams, is more important. But if the annual ritual debate is resolving itself as a draw, that may be the best Miliband can hope for. The fact is that there are only two ways of grading A-levels, or any other test. Either you give A grades to the top 10 per cent each year, or you try to set a standard of work that will gain an A regardless of how many others achieve it. The jargon for the first method is "norm referencing", and it is how A-level grades were set until 1987. It was quite effective at identifying the most academically able, and was therefore useful to the best universities in selecting candidates. But it was widely recognised as unfair for the purposes of looking for jobs: employers wanted to know that students had met a certain standard, not where they came in the pecking order. As standards rose and grades didn't, the pressure grew for change. The case for switching to "criterion referencing" was accepted by a secretary of state for education called Sir Keith Joseph. So it should come as no surprise that the Conservatives are muted in their attack on the politicians responsible for "debasing the A-level gold standard".

Any system that tries to compare judgements about people's performances will lead to complaints, appeals and arguments about whether marks are awarded too generously, as many of the Olympics events have richly demonstrated. In practice, however, the "problem" of "too many" A grades, which have grown from 10 per cent to 22 per cent of all passes since 1987, matters to a tiny proportion of the population: the 20,000 out of 270,000 A-level students who get three As, and the best universities, who complain that they cannot distinguish adequately between them. It is a technical problem that will be fixed. Three options are being considered, although I don't see why exam boards should not simply publish the raw marks on which grades are based.

The question that matters to far more people is whether education policy generally is heading in the right direction. Progress has certainly been slow. The failure to hit targets that were set too high has occasionally been embarrassing. The targets included those that will be missed again tomorrow, as well as Blair's reckless promise to fellow Islington resident and journalist Anne McElvoy that she could send her children to "good" secondary schools in the borough if he had two terms in Downing Street. That was a triumph of optimism over complexity. But I would have thought that Labour is delivering roughly what people thought they were voting for. The significance of Miliband's aggressive defence of A-level performance, and that of Charles Clarke's five-year strategy for education published last month, is that they show that New Labour still holds the initiative. The essential trick in politics of setting the pace and denying your opponents space has been pulled off by Blair's team - yet again.

Two years ago, at the start of his push on public service reform, Blair worried that there was "a real timidity in taking big policy changes on board" at the Department for Education, according to a memo leaked to Anthony Seldon, author of Blair, a new book about the Prime Minister. There still is, in that Clarke is reluctant to go for some of Blair's more exciting ideas about diversity of provision in the schools market, about which he remains privately enthusiastic. But Clarke won the argument that such radicalism could be electorally dangerous.

Instead, he and Miliband have shown that aggression in pursuit of consensual policies, backed by a wall of money from the taxpayer, is enough to wrong-foot the Conservatives completely. The Tories got into a terrible tangle earlier this year about the admissions criteria for schools, which seemed to end up with their deciding that all schools could be selective. Labour, on the other hand, plans to pour money into city academies designed to turn round sink schools in deprived areas.

On universities, the Tories have not yet recovered from their opportunistic promise to abolish tuition fees, which renders almost anything they say about A-levels vulnerable to counter-attack. One of their responses to the A-level results, for example, was to complain about the lack of places for medical students. It is not obvious that the way to deal with that problem is to reduce the numbers going to university.

Miliband's success in neutralising the A-level standards issue has exposed the failure of the Conservatives to fill out their strategy of matching Labour's spending promises on the NHS and schools. That strategy is only going to work if the Tories can convince people they would be able to spend the same amount of money more effectively. So far, there is no sign of that. As Blair has been persuaded, radical reform risks upsetting too many people who have a vested interest in the system. Unfortunately for the Tories, they include many of the children of middle England who achieved good A-level grades last week, and their parents. Now, back to the Olympics.

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