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Viv Groskop: Don't bash A-Levels until you've sat one again


What grade would you get if you sat an A-Level? Judging by the press the beleaguered exams get, most people probably assume they could walk in off the street and get an A* in pretty much any subject. If they asked their dog to sit the paper.

It's with this climate in mind that exam regulators at Ofqual have just proposed reforms which could kick in from September 2013. "Modules" are to be replaced with end-of-year-exams. So no more coursework. AS Levels may be scrapped. Any qualification should have the support of at least 20 universities. And no one will be allowed to re-sit an exam more than once. (Er, why is this allowed anyway?)

Ahead of Ofqual's latest findings, however, the Russell Group raised concerns that maths coursework is too easy and that English Literature A-Level students are encouraged to develop "emotional reactions" when they should be concentrating on literary theory. Since when do you read a piece of English literature without having an emotional reaction? A big part of English is all about teaching you to articulate and question that, surely?

A-Level bashing has become a national sport for armchair experts who have not been near an exam paper in decades. It's funny, isn't it, how many people love slagging off qualifications but don't put quite as much enthusiasm into actually sitting the exams?

To prove a point, I took A-Level English Lit two years ago. I put the hours in because you can't avoid putting the hours in. You have to hand in thousands of words' worth of coursework. With bibliographies and everything. I sat several exams, some in January and some in June. Because if you want an A-Level nowadays, you have to pass the AS Level just to be able to sit the A-Level. I swotted and sweated.

In the end, my grade was A*. But it was bloody difficult. I wouldn't do it again. And I definitely wouldn't have wanted to sit four or five other subjects at the same time, as I would have been expected to if I was 18.

I do sympathise with the critics of A-Levels, I know from university lecturers that they have serious concerns about standards and, especially, about the fact that no one who is 18 seems to want to read an entire book to the end anymore. (The internet has done this, apparently.) It's not right that the pass rate has risen for 29 successive years.

But I also know what you have to learn to get an A-Level. And it's not nothing. The small print in both the Russell Group and Ofqual reports? A-Levels are "broadly fit for purpose". But that's not much of a story, is it?

We're failing in the sexism stakes

UK Plc is rapidly turning into one of the least feminist states on the globe.François Hollande has appointed women, including Aurélie Filippetti, pictured, to half the 34 new French cabinet posts and a quarter of the French parliament is now made of up of women. In the international female MP stakes (yes, this is a real poll at www.ipu.org), France has now moved from number 69 to 34 in the world rankings. Britain languishes at 54th, reading a copy of Zoo magazine and chomping on Big D peanuts.

I saw some actual Big D peanuts the other day. The more peanuts you buy, the more of the woman's body you see, celebrating that uniquely British synergy between active obesity and passive voyeurism. The woman was wearing a Union Jack bikini. It made me nostalgic. Until I remembered that you don't need to be nostalgic when nothing has changed.