Richard Garner: The Government's exam result: a very British fudge

Traditionalists in the education world are gleeful at the prospect of discovering more 'grade inflation'

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The debate on A-level standards will be re-ignited with new vigour on Thursday. This year's candidates are the first "guinea pigs'' to come out of the education system under the new regime of AS-levels. The new tests are given at the end of the first year of the sixth form, with A-levels following in the second year. This new system, it was said yesterday, increases students' chances of obtaining a higher grade pass, and reduces chances of failure.

The debate on A-level standards will be re-ignited with new vigour on Thursday. This year's candidates are the first "guinea pigs'' to come out of the education system under the new regime of AS-levels. The new tests are given at the end of the first year of the sixth form, with A-levels following in the second year. This new system, it was said yesterday, increases students' chances of obtaining a higher grade pass, and reduces chances of failure.

However, given that this is Britain, improved A-levels are not a cause for celebration. Traditionalists in the education world are already gleeful at the prospect of discovering more "grade inflation'' in this year's results; they are dusting-down the quotes that they have issued year after year, complaining that the exam is getting easier to pass.

Let me deal with the arguments one by one. First of all, the forecast that the failure rate will be cut. This is because the very fact that you can take an AS-level in your chosen A-level subject at the end of the first year in the sixth form gives you a much clearer indication of whether you will pass or fail in the main exam in a year's time.

If you are hopelessly behind, or if your struggle to improve will make it more difficult to achieve an acceptable grade in your other chosen subjects, you have clear-cut evidence, for the first time, that you should drop the subject in which you are doing badly.

Good point. It makes no sense to struggle on for another year only to be proved a failure – even if your failure would lead to a deterioration in the national pass rate, making the results more palatable to the education world's right-wing critics.

Second, this end-of-first-year exam may also show students that they are doing better in a subject they had planned to drop – thus allowing them to pursue it at A-level and giving them the prospect of a higher grade pass. Again, all to the good for the student; however unwelcome by the critics.

The biggest controversy, however, is over the fact that the new system allows candidates to re-sit units of their course that they failed in their first year. Hence the exam becomes easier to pass, and you have grade inflation. Yes, but surely it is better for the student to have gained enough knowledge to pass? What does it matter how long it took them and what pitfalls they faced on the way?

Would those who argue against being allowed re-sits suggest that people who fail their first driving test should never be allowed to take it again? I suppose it might reduce traffic congestion and might therefore be a policy that would appeal to Ken Livingstone, but it would be a pretty draconian way of deciding someone's future.

So there are two reasons why the introduction of the AS-level examination will give heart to ministers this week.

However, these were not the main reasons why the new examination was introduced. It was supposed to be an attempt to offer a broader sixth-form curriculum, in line with what other European countries are giving their students – a sort of British version of the baccalaureate.

There is little evidence, however, that it is achieving the desired widening of the range of subjects to which a student is exposed. Too many students are opting to take a fourth subject in their perceived strength. For example, if you are contemplating maths, physics and chemistry at A-level, you may well add biology, or biology and further maths, at AS-level, instead of studying an arts subject, such as history or German, which would broaden your horizons.

One of the reasons for this trend is that university admissions officers are still not paying enough attention to AS-level achievements. If they really did insist on breadth of study as an important contribution for a university education, a very different picture would emerge in the subject choices of first-year sixth-formers.

What we are left with is a very British fudge – a sort of half-way house to the European system. This has left us with students facing external examinations in each of their final three years before leaving school – first GCSEs, then AS-levels and, finally, A-levels. If only we had had the courage of our convictions years ago, when a committee of eminent professors set-up by the previous Conservative administration recommended that students should normally take five A-levels instead of three, we would now be further down the road to a broad sixth-form curriculum.

But, no, the previous Conservative administration dismissed its own report out of hand as an attack on what it saw as the "gold standard" of education – the A-level. Labour, fearful of headlines that it was watering down its commitment to raising standards if it tinkered with A-levels, moved only half way towards the goal both it and the Tories know to be best.

As a result, we have a system today that still needs improvement. The Government has already published a green paper on reforming education for 14 to 19-year-olds, and will publish the results of its consultations this autumn.

David Miliband, the new Minister for School Standards, said, when he addressed the National Association of Head Teachers' Conference in his first ministerial speech, that he thought the time had come for a national debate on the issue. He was right. It has.

r.garner@independent.co.uk

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