Philip Hensher: Perhaps it's time to drop A-level grading

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For a quarter of a century, A-level results have been improving, year on year. Almost nobody now fails - 3.4 per cent last year - unless they actually want to. And just under a quarter of exam papers submitted were awarded an A grade in 2006.

Nobody who has thought about it for a moment could possibly believe in the steady improvement, year upon year, of student abilities. Certainly anyone who teaches in a university will have seen students with A grades who are not, by any definition, in the top stratum of student ability. At the university I teach, nobody gets in without an A grade in the subject, and literacy at the most basic level is a constant concern.

The Government has steadily denied that marking has become more generous, despite the unarguably inflationary tendency. They also deny - a slightly different point - that A-levels have become any easier over the last 25 years. In my subject, English, it is hard to accept this claim. Although the best students are as intelligent and interesting as they ever have been, we do have to deal with students who, despite sailing through A-levels with top grades, have the utmost difficulty in writing coherently, and even in reading a novel from beginning to end.

Many enterprising students, with the aid of enterprising teachers, have equipped themselves with the proper abilities. But one feels that A-levels do not structurally impel them to attain the level of accomplishment that used to be taken for granted.

It is difficult to prove this in the arts and humanities. But Sir Peter Williams, who has just been appointed to an advisory role on the reform of lessons, has just stated frankly that in his own field, maths and physics, "I don't think there is any doubt whatsoever that absolute A-level standards have fallen."

Subjects which used to be taught in the first year at university are now having to be put off until the second year. Areas of learning which used to be included in the A-level syllabus - and remember, these are not topics subject to intellectual fashion - have been removed as too demanding. This, I have to say, falls squarely into the area of the utterly obvious.

Actually, I'm not sure that the simplification of A-levels, as opposed to the inflation of grades, is altogether a bad thing. If, these days, a huge range of abilities is crammed together under the A grade, in the old days, a huge range of ability was disguised by the lower grades. Generally, I think it rather a good thing to have an exam which can accurately measure the whole range of ability at this level, and the "entry" point was probably set too high formerly. A weak student ought to be able to achieve something if his powers are to be measured at all.

But what the A-level, whether it is simple or demanding, ought to present to the consumers of its products - universities and employers - is a clear indication of where a student sits on the spectrum. That, it is clearly failing to do, and the introduction of a new A* grade won't address the problem in any long-term way.

What we are interested in is not whether a student has done better or worse than students of a quarter of a century ago. We only want to know the students' abilities in relation to those of their contemporaries. The answer is, or ought to be, perfectly simple: abandon the grades altogether, and publish the marks in numerical form. Then we can all draw our own conclusions with the help of detailed and accurate information.

Still the Queen of bling

Has the Queen decided to stop smiling and nodding, and just let people know what she actually thinks? Hot on the Annie Leibovitz affair comes the news that Garrard has been dropped as the Crown Jeweller. Garrard has, for 10 years, tried to make itself more funky, appointing Jade Jagger as its creative director and using Christina Aguilera as its "brand ambassador". A foolish move. A fashion designer might not regard the Queen, left, as its most prominent client, but anyone can see that a jeweller ought to hang on to the royal warrant at all costs. There is no pop-star's daughter, no Russian oligarch's wife who could ever come near the sheer frozen waterfall of bling which characterises the Queen on a good night.

* A gloriously pointless piece of research by Texas University has inquired into the reasons why people choose to have sex. "Why people have sex is a surprisingly little-studied topic," the report says. "One reason for its relative neglect is that scientists might simply assume that the answers are obvious."

Well, they totted them all up, and came to the conclusion that there are 237 separate reasons to jump on top of each other. They include "attraction, pleasure, affection, love, romance, emotional closeness, arousal ..." and, just as you were starting to wonder whether the researchers were earning their academic salaries, some rather odder ones. "I wanted to burn calories." "I wanted to feel closer to God." Or, my personal favourite,"I wanted to see what all the fuss was about."

How sweet. But here, surely, is an area where science can only do so much. No novelist, or any reader of novels, would ever have thought the answers obvious, or few. There must be a lot more than 237 reasons to be found in the works of Tolstoy alone.