Leading article: These starred As are good news for Britain

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The Independent Online
Britain is a world leader in post-imperial blues. A sense of failure permeates our perception of ourselves. In areas ranging from the economy to sport, millions have long felt that things are not quite as they should be. Other countries have soared onward and upward, while Britain has felt itself left trailing. Even when the news has proved to be somewhat better than conventional pessimism might suggest, we have been reluctant to concede any change for the better. German newspapers regularly carry envious articles about the efficiency of the British economy, but we Brits are still secretly convinced that we have failed.

Thus, on education, there is a widespread disinclination to believe that the news can be anything but bad. So, when the evidence appears to be mostly that things are improving, a hundred arguments come up to show that it cannot be so. Exam results gradually get better, but the obvious explanation - that pupils (and therefore teachers) are performing better - is regarded as probable poppycock. Instead, the immediate assumption is that the exams themselves must have become easier. How can there be so many starred As, sceptical adults wonder?

And yet. A report last year compared exams and marking schemes between the Seventies and the present day, and found little sign of a radical change in standards or performance. If anything, the suggestion seemed to be that more intelligent analysis is now required of pupils than in the golden olden days. Pure maths seems to be less demanding. Even that, however, is partly because pupils are expected to have a grasp of a greater area than before.

The results in maths and science have continued to improve slightly year after year, after the initial leap forward when GCSEs were introduced in 1988. That first bound was probably misleading. But the subsequent improvements are likely to have been real. There is no evidence from other countries that the generosity of examination markers increases year by year, nor is there any reason why the British should be different in this regard. The comparison between exam results and sports records is not perfect, but neither is it obviously wrong. We have long become accustomed to the fact that performances on the athletics track get better as the years go by, relentlessly pushing previous world records into oblivion. In education, where the flaws are widely acknowledged, we should be pleased but not surprised if things gradually improve.

The reality is that, after long neglect, and recent strenuous efforts to raise sights in schools, pupils and teachers are beginning to respond. It was always going to be a long haul, and the pace needs to be kept up, for the simple reason that we still lag needlessly behind too many competitor nations in fields such as maths, science and technology. But progress is being made: the pendulum has swung from the regimented education of previous generations (where what mattered was the ability to parrot replies, without necessarily understanding their significance) to the equally damaging discovery methods of more recent years. The pendulum has now swung back to the centre, where both sides acknowledge the weakness of previous extremes: long may it remain suspended there.

The national curriculum, so roundly attacked when it was introduced, has proved not to be the lethally inflexible structure which its opponents insisted that it would be. Instead, after many largely successful revisions, it now stands for what our fellow-Europeans have long taken for granted: the knowledge that standards can more easily be maintained or improved within a reasonable and clearly defined framework.

Clearly, there is a danger in putting too much emphasis (as school league tables do) on the achievements only of the more academically able. But the experience of other countries suggests that raised expectations in schools can help to escape the culture still common in Britain, in which children and their parents conspire to despise achievement and aspiration. Lifting standards throughout schools can be beneficial for all, not just for the gifted few.

We should worry a little about the shift in subjects now being studied - a 2 per cent decline, for example, in the numbers taking GCSE English, which marked a greater drop than the absolute drop in the number of 16- year-olds. Increases in pupils studying information technology are welcome, but do we really want more children taking physical education at the expense of English? However, it is by no means clear that the results have been "cheapened"; for many pupils, the broader range of subjects offers greater opportunity to achieve.

That, in fact, is what we should all be after: attempting to find ways of enabling all children to achieve more - not by lowering the height of the hurdles in order to get the weaker ones round the track, but by offering a variety of events in which they can excel. The hurdles that need to be raised continuously are those set for schools and teachers, so that they never start to believe that they can level off.

Right now, in the middle of another August, when some children around the country are scooping a heap of starred As, and others are rejoicing at having simply mustered a few passes, the proper spirit is one of congratulation, not only to pupils, but also to their teachers, in those schools which have raised their game. And if the increased numbers taking GCSE sciences presages a larger number of pupils setting off next month on science and technology A-levels, so much the better: let's give them all the encouragement we can.