Philip Hensher: If A-level results are like a marathon, then who gets to be Paula Radcliffe?

It would be much more sensible to abandon the whole thing and just publish the marks. Then everyone would know where they stood
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The Independent Online

Except that it's obviously not true. I long ago stopped caring about the idiotic things which government ministers said, year after year, on the publication of the ever-improving A-level results. But connoisseurs of the phenomenon will greatly have enjoyed this year's contributions. Lord Adonis wonderfully compared A-level results to a marathon race, saying that we don't wonder about the fact that more and more people complete the marathon.

Let's pursue that comparison. For instance, 43.6 per cent of all women taking A-level maths this year got a grade A. For Lord Adonis's purposes, if 10,000 women run a marathon, the achievement of the woman who came in the 4,360th position has exactly the same achievement as Miss Paula Radcliffe.

Is that the case? No, obviously not. Just spare a thought for the poor admissions tutors, trying to work out from a piece of paper whether they're considering Liz McColgan or a fat girl dressed up as an emu.

That's the point. It hardly matters whether children are growing more stupid, or whether the exams are growing easier. It's that exam results are, in the real world, currency, and when they refuse to differentiate between a prodigy and the one who comes in the 4,360th position, the currency is worthless.

One of the most regular features of the ever-improving A-level results is that letter which appears without fail in the letter columns of the newspapers. Every year it runs: 1. I've just taken my A-levels. 2. I worked extremely hard. 3. I got an A. 4. I don't know how people can claim that A-levels are getting easier.

Amusing as this is, it does make you wonder about academic quality when people are doing so well but they haven't appreciated the importance of making comparisons alongside their own experience.

If we really want to find out what has been achieved - in, say, a marathon race - then we want to know what the relative positions of the candidates were. The world changes so much that we're never likely to come to any sensible conclusion by comparing the demands of exams now with those of 30 years ago. On the other hand, it is vital to be able to compare two candidates who have taken the same exam at the same time.

The exam system now is conspicuously failing to do that at the upper end, and no amount of tinkering with the grade system will change that in the long run. The old quota system, too, had a built-in unfairness. Really, it would be much more sensible to abandon the whole thing, and just publish the marks. Then everyone would know where they stood.

Bowled over by the cricket

The most unexpected development of the summer, surely, is the popularity of the cricket. The viewing figures have been around eight million, an extraordinary figure. Considering that it's supposed to be our national game, it's amazing how many people don't really understand it.

I certainly include myself in that. I only have the very vaguest idea of what commentators mean when they say "leg spin" or "googly", or, until very recently, how a cricket match could be drawn. Moreover, I was one of those boys at school who, while fielding, absolutely dreaded that horrible red thing coming in my direction, and was never likely to become a fan.

Though a lot of viewers have, like me, been drawn by the possibility that England might for once have a chance of winning the Ashes, we've stuck with it because of the strange combination of bursts of excitement and gentlemanly decency. How delightful that cricketers really do congratulate each other's sides, and really do have codes of honour still. For once, looking at the wonderful "Freddie" Flintoff, it doesn't seem absurd when a sportsman is held up as a "role model" for the young.

* "Do you want to see Bewitched?" someone said. "Nope," I said. "But you like crap about ditzy tarts," they said. "I know," I said. "But I've had it with Nicole."

That's it. I've just decided I can't be doing with Nicole Kidman one more time. In The Interpreter and Birth, I couldn't believe in her as a woman with a career; The Stepford Wives ditto, plus not being funny; after Dogville, I thought "All is forgiven, but never do it again"; Cold Mountain embarrassing, The Hours plain awful, Birthday Girl squirm-making. As at too many of her films, you just sat there and watched the acting.

Now I come to think of it, I don't think I've unaffectedly enjoyed a movie of hers since To Die For, a good 10 years ago. Nicole Kidman, in my view, just picks terrible movies, or the wrong movies for her. Anyone could have seen that The Stepford Wives was a stinker from the start; anyone could have told her that she stood no chance of convincing in Birth.

It makes you realise what a skill there is to picking the right projects. An actor like Kevin Spacey or Michael Douglas is always worth watching, not because of their technical skills, but because they always seem to have a sense of what movies they can do something interesting in. There aren't many of Douglas's movies you wouldn't be happy to sit through twice.

On the other hand, though she is lovely to look at and undeniably very thin, Nicole Kidman would probably have to pay anyone to watch even so clever a movie as Eyes Wide Shut more than once. There must be someone, somewhere, prepared to go through scripts with her and encourage her to say no once in a while.