Leading Article: Full marks for effort

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THE CONSERVATIVE Party has been in power for 13 years now. So it is curious that the best news this week for the Government should be an HMI report leaked by the Department for Education itself, suggesting that this year's GCSE results conceal a considerable slippage of standards over the last five years. There is a logic behind this, though. The Government's attempts to reform education are being carried out in the face of entrenched opposition from many people engaged in the business day to day. Without a constant pressure of indignation behind it, the Government will make no headway.

The country cannot afford for the education system just to maintain its present unsatisfactory standards. But for things to improve it is probably politically necessary that parents should believe that everything is getting so much worse as to make worthwhile the disruption that all improvement entails. So the Government, which has for years been maintaining that GCSE examinations need involve no slippage in standards, now seems to be suggesting the exact opposite, while still expecting to benefit from talking down its own earlier reforms.

John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, has demanded that the examination boards explain themselves by the end of the month. In particular, he wants assurances that they are paying due attention to the archival material that records the absolute standards represented by marks compiled in the past. The HMI report is said to voice considerable suspicion that these objective benchmarks have been ignored or forgotten, so that higher and higher grades have come to represent lower and lower standards.

Supposing that these suspicions prove justified - and they are certainly widespread - what may be done? In the short term, Mr Patten can demand that the boards establish new standards and criteria before the next round of GCSE examinations begin in April. In the longer term, the future of the examinations themselves is once more threatened. It took eight years for the Conservative government to attempt reform of the education system. There is no reason to believe that the first attempts got everything right. This paper has long argued that the GCSE does not offer nearly enough of a challenge to gifted


There is an intermediate course between demanding that the examining boards keep up satisfactory standards and setting entirely new standards for them to keep up to. This involves challenging the boards themselves. There is no particular reason why we should have the boards we do. Like so many British institutions, they just grew. They might be better for pruning. Or they might benefit from competition. There is nothing to stop any suitable body from setting up in business as a provider of examination services.

If parents and employers knew that awards from one examining body were guarantees of excellence, success would naturally and deservedly follow. Such an approach would take advantage of the variations and inconsistencies between examining boards that are now one of their great weaknesses. Another route to the same end might be to set up a single unified examining body for the entire country. Either approach will horrify the education establishment. But the state of the nation's education system demands outrage.