Leading article: Inappropriate nostalgia

The Schools Minister was also justified in pointing out in a speech yesterday that the improved performance of the education system in general is behind the rising pass rate. As even the most virulent of the Government's critics would be forced to agree, schools are better funded and teachers better trained than a decade ago. It would be troubling if the billions the Government has invested in the education system since 1997 had not succeeded in improving the A-level pass rate. Indeed, those who today rage against "easier exams" would have been the first to complain had such an improvement not occurred.

In truth, the row over standards that always breaks out at this time of year is something of a red herring. Exams are not a zero-sum game. The majority does not have to fail for a few to succeed. This debate is mainly driven by a misplaced nostalgia for the days when a relatively small number of children left school with any qualifications at all - and only a tiny élite went to university. Thankfully, those days are gone.

Yet this is not the same thing as saying that A-levels are not in need of reform. All sides agree that, since so many top grades are awarded, the exam is failing to identify the very best candidates. And this is making it impossible for the top universities to operate a meritocratic selection procedure. Combined with the rush to enrol before the higher tuition fees are introduced, this year's selection procedures have been even more of a lottery than usual. In this narrow sense, it is perfectly true that top A-level grades are no longer the "gold standard" they were.

Lord Adonis proposes to release the marks of each student's A-level "modules" to help universities identify the best performers. But there was a much better proposal under consideration earlier this year - and the Government rejected it. The Tomlinson report on 14-19 education proposed dismantling the present public exam structure and establishing an over-arching diploma. This would not only have given greater emphasis to vocational courses - something British business has long called for - but would have differentiated the brightest pupils more effectively than the current A-level system. It was political cowardice that led the Government to baulk at such reform. Ministers should revisit it now.

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