Richard Garner: The system is imperfect, but we haven't seen a better one

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The Independent Online

There is no doubting Professor Murphy has a point when he says exam grades do not reflect a candidate's innate ability.

How the student feels on the day, whether their teacher adequately prepared them for the questions that came up, indeed, whether the marker had a good night's sleep can all impact upon results. The question is, given all that, what do we do about it? Employers and higher education institutions both rely on the candidate's grades to give them a job or place at university.

We could, I suppose, return to the days before national examinations, when success at obtaining a university place depended on how well a candidate did during an interview. However, I doubt whether many people would wear that because of the limitless scope for grace and favour such a system contains.

Indeed, Professor Murphy himself comes to the conclusion that he cannot think of a better way of testing a person's ability, so it looks as though we are stuck with it.

As to the hype over exam standards today and whether today's papers can hold a candle to those of the 1950s, I have to say it really is not at all possible (or helpful) to make comparisons. Has running a mile, for instance, become easier now so many people are doing it in under four minutes compared with 50 years ago?

The truth is we live in a different world now, where different questions need to be asked of candidates to see if they are prepared for employment or study.

Employers have moaned for years that too many employees cannot read or write properly. In the past, there were so many unskilled jobs creating opportunities for school leavers that we did not need everyone to be literate and numerate.

It is worth noting that some changes to the A-level system this year have toughened up the exam. Candidates are being asked more searching essay-style questions. Then there is the introduction of the A* grade.

We should not ignore the complaints about standards, but we should keep them in perspective.