Leading article: Congratulations, but reform is needed

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The Independent Online

Most of the quarter of a million students who picked up their A-level results yesterday will have worked hard for their grades. And those who have done as well as, or perhaps better than, they expected deserve our congratulations. How unfair it is on such students that congratulations at this time of year are always drowned out by a debate in the media about whether standards have declined. It is no fault of the students that the exam system is in need of reform. They can only answer the questions in the papers that are put in front of them.

Yet the need for reform of the system is now undeniable. As a tool for educating the population, A-levels are failing. The UK continues to lag behind many EU countries when it comes to the numbers staying on in education or training after the age of 16. For all the talk of A-levels becoming easier, their narrow academic nature is still deterring too many from remaining in school or college any longer than they have to.

And as a mechanism for allowing universities to select the best candidates, A-levels are next to useless. Almost a quarter of UK A-level entries were awarded the top grade this year. Calls for the establishment of a new A star grade to distinguish the very top candidates is unlikely to solve the problem. Such are the inflationary pressures in the system that, if introduced, more students would eventually acquire these new top grades too, requiring the establishment of yet another "top" grade.

So while we congratulate those students who have this year performed well in their exams, we call, once again, for the scrapping of A-levels and GCSEs and the establishment of a diploma system as recommended by the 2004 Tomlinson report. Under such a system, examiners would be less susceptible to political pressure - implicit or otherwise - to deliver annual improvements in results. The countries that have a baccalaureate-style system appear less prone to hysteria over declining standards.

The vocational element of diplomas would also help to encourage more pupils to remain in education longer. Meanwhile, their more flexible grading system would enable more differentiation at the top end of the academic scale, making it easier for universities to select the best candidates.

It should be noted that some independent schools are already introducing the system off their own bat. And a baccalaureate system being piloted in Wales has shown some encouraging results. This Government has been a progressive force in many aspects of the education system, but in resisting this important reform it is lining up with the misguided traditionalists.