Richard Garner: A-level results will be up again, but it's all going to change

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The Independent Online

Before the last election, a senior Conservative party schools spokesman let it be known he would be quite happy to preside over a fall in the A-level pass rate were he to become Secretary of State for Education. In true Sir Humphrey fashion, he was told he was being very "brave", as he would be pilloried by the media for presiding over falling standards. These are the same sections of the media, incidentally, that greet rises in the pass rate as evidence of a "dumbing down" of the exam.

It could be – if the Conservatives win the next general election – that Michael Gove finds himself in the position of that earlier schools spokesman. (Or Ed Balls, or his successor, should Labour still be in power.)

The reasons are twofold: one is that, in pure mathematical terms, with the overall pass rate nudging 97.5 per cent, there is nowhere much higher for it to go. Someone is always going to be sick or off the boil on the day. Some may even find the exam too hard.

More importantly, though, A-levels are to be revamped with more open-ended questions designed to tease out pupils' critical-thinking skills. It is what the universities' admissions officers have been demanding for so long as they try to choose between, in Oxford and Cambridge's case, around 20,000 candidates with three straight As at A-level for a maximum of 7,000 places.

In a sense, the clock is turning back to the A-level of yesteryear, which makes it less easy for teachers to coach their pupils in the correct answer (although obviously a correct answer will remain in some subjects, such as maths).

We should welcome the questions being made more taxing. We should probably also welcome it if the powers-that-be went further and accepted a suggestion from Jerry Jarvis, managing director of the Edexcel exam board, that the grade boundaries should be redrawn to make it tougher to get an A grade.

The advantages, again, would be twofold. First, more credibility would be restored to the exam. Second, it might persuade some of the independent schools who are switching to the new Pre-U exam, designed on traditional A-level lines, because they feel it is more exacting. It would be better if all schools were working towards the same thing, all having confidence in the one qualification.

In fact, if only the examiners had reintroduced more searching questions and tackled the issue of grade boundaries years earlier, it may not have been necessary to resort to introducing the new A* grade – also available for pupils for the first time next year.

All these changes are in the future, though. Meanwhile, this Thursday – the day when anxious teenagers receive their results – we are once again expecting to report on a rise in the percentage of A grades and a modest increase in the overall pass rate.

My own opinion is that this phenomenon, which has been repeated annually for the past 27 years, is not a result of a "dumbing down" of the exam. It is a result of teachers having become far more successful in coaching their pupils to pass the exam. That is no reason, though, for not changing the grade boundaries. Ofqual, the new exam standards watchdog, please note.

So, personally, I would have no difficulties in reporting on the first fall in the overall A-level pass rate were it to happen next year. And I promise I would not pillory any education secretary presiding over the drop for allowing standards to go down.