Celebrate the A-level successes, then change our system of exams

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The Independent Online

The onward march of girls appears unstoppable. Within the last decade they have overtaken boys at every stage of compulsory education, and yesterday they stormed another citadel. For the first time, girls grabbed a higher proportion of A-level A grades than boys. Now, men lead only in the percentage of first-class degrees they secure - but even there the gender gap is narrowing and experts believe that women will catch up before long.

The onward march of girls appears unstoppable. Within the last decade they have overtaken boys at every stage of compulsory education, and yesterday they stormed another citadel. For the first time, girls grabbed a higher proportion of A-level A grades than boys. Now, men lead only in the percentage of first-class degrees they secure - but even there the gender gap is narrowing and experts believe that women will catch up before long.

The reason is clear. Within the lifetime of most middle-aged people, society has changed its mind about the role of women. Once, it believed that education should prepare women for the roles of wife and mother. Now, it encourages them to go to university and have careers. But it is still too soon to talk about genuine equality when more than three times the number of boys take physics A-level and far fewer girls take mathematics.

The success of girls is cause for celebration, particularly as it has not been at the expense of boys. Boys' results have been improving, too, though less rapidly, and pupils and teachers are to be congratulated on the improvement in the pass rate. No doubt this will be met with the usual whinges that "standards are falling", but these complaints sound less convincing every year. As John Dunford, the heads' leader, points out, companies expect to improve annual performance, so why shouldn't schools?

What is true, however, is that pupils' strengths and weaknesses are evolving. For example, their English grammar might not be quite what it was, but their analysis of literature is more sophisticated. But if there is any grade inflation, this is a small price to pay when vastly more people are taking A-levels than 40 years ago - an important educational advance.

The real worry about the A-level is a different one. Despite government efforts to promote vocational qualifications, it remains the only exam with real credibility for 18-year-olds. GNVQs, shortly to be renamed vocational A-levels, have 80,000 entries compared with nearly 800,000 for A-level, and their number decreased this year. Yet the A-level is unsuited to many of those who embark on courses. Nearly 11 per cent of entries fail and, though the figures are difficult to come by, it is likely that between 15 and 20 per cent of those who start courses drop out.

From this September, ministers are changing the A-level system. Pupils will be expected to do more subjects and will sit a new exam at the end of the first year. So some of those who feel they cannot cope with a full A-level will at least have something to show for their efforts at the end of the first year in the sixth form. That will help a little, but it will not solve the fundamental problem of too many pupils taking an academic exam because it has status rather than because it is suited to their talents. Even the GNVQ is seen as a route to university rather than to work.

What is urgently needed is a qualification that provides a ladder from school to work for those who are not motivated by academic study.

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