Rhiannon Harries: What I learnt from Sir Trevor Nunn's A-level test

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The Independent Online

Waiting for exam results is, I recall, a time of intermittent anxiety. There are occasional palpitations, but my memory is of a merciful period of enforced stasis – no more work could be done to change my destiny; it was now in the lap of the gods. But unlike those teens who received their grades on Thursday, I didn't endure daily debate and gloomy pronouncements about the qualification I was hoping to achieve.

This year much controversy surrounds the new A* grade at A-level, intended to differentiate the very best from the best. Last Monday, the Radio 4 programme How to Get an A Star set out to answer just that question. In what was presumably an attempt to show how silly it all is, former RSC director Trevor Nunn and Reduced Shakespeare Company founder Adam Long answered a sample A-level question about Hamlet – and both scored B grades. Ridiculous, isn't it?

Well, no. According to the examiner, neither adequately met the assessment objectives that include fluency, good construction and assurance – essentially, the basics of a good argument.

"I thought I was being tested on Shakespeare, not debating," sniffed Long, highlighting a pervasive misunderstanding of the way the qualification is marked – and therefore taught – nowadays.

The programme's presenter, the actress Imogen Stubbs (Nunn's wife) suggested this is a shame; that it's all about exam technique, not appreciation of literature. Up to a point, she's right – there isn't enough breathing space within the curriculum to linger over texts. But marshalling knowledge, limited though it may be, organising your thoughts and expressing them persuasively are hardly redundant skills outside the exam room.

In theory, the slight shift in the weighting of marks towards critical and rhetorical abilities is a good and fair thing. It ought to mean that kids who don't get taken to the Globe by their parents every year from the age of two can score as highly as those who do – reams of background material should not be necessary. But I'm not convinced it works. Aren't those same kids who are taken to the theatre the ones who are more likely to hear adults debating subjects with fluency and logic around the dinner table? And don't the privileged have a head start when it comes to that crucial assurance and confidence?

Middle-class parents can bemoan the current system all they like, but its most serious flaws are not something they need worry about.