Leading Article: Why oh why can't politicians get their facts right?

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The Independent Online
"The danger is that more and more students are going to be educated for longer and longer at greater public expense to know less and less." Discuss.

Chris Woodhead, the chief schools inspector, provided us yesterday with a text for the educational angst of our time. It pungently expresses the view of the "Why oh why" brigade, the clamour of Middle England which is a whine against national decline. Why oh why can't graduates spell these days? Why do so many young people destroy their chance of work experience by addressing their request to The Independant?

It was worrying that Mr Woodhead, a public servant, seemed to be speaking yesterday for the right-wing ideologues who have laid siege to the educational establishment. But the important question is whether he is right. Although he did not quite say so in so many words, it sounded as if he were saying that A-level students "know less and less".

The trouble is that the principal finding of yesterday's report, commissioned in response to the persistent Middle-English complaint that A-levels are getting easier, is that we don't know. The reason we don't know is because hardly any of the candidates' scripts have been kept over the past 20 years. (The exception to this is maths, where an authoritative study by the London Mathematical Society last year found that maths A-levels had become easier, and that standards required for algebra and reasoning had dropped. (However, as maths has always been harder to pass than other A-levels, this could be defended as a much-needed adjustment.) So Gillian Shephard, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, has promised to set up an archive to preserve the nation's youthful outpourings, on one side of the paper only.

This carelessness of record-keeping means we are destined not to escape the dreadful familiarity and circularity of the annual argument over falling standards every time results are published. And it means that Mrs Shephard is allowed to bamboozle people by declaring that she wants to return to "traditional" A-levels, with more stress on grammar and mental arithmetic rather than calculators in GCSEs, using the words "rigour" and "gold standard" as often as possible. These are rhetorical devices being bandied about in an evidence-free zone.

So let us start with those parts of Mr Woodhead's statement on the BBC's Today programme for which there is evidence. More and more students are being educated for longer and longer. But he is wrong to suggest that this is being achieved at greater public expense. Spending per student has fallen. It is a tribute to the efficiency of our education system that it has been able to absorb such an expansion in numbers, both of the 16-18 age group and of over-18s, on such limited resources.

However, much is wrong with the education system, especially in England and Wales rather than Scotland and Northern Ireland, and much in particular is wrong with A-levels. As David Blunkett reminded us yesterday, the Prime Minister himself declared three years ago that the top 15 per cent of young people in Britain were equal to their peers anywhere in the world, but admitted that the remaining 85 per cent "frankly are not". Highly- competitive and specialised A-levels serve this top academic group well, but that is anyway not our real problem. The difficulty is how to broaden the base of the system so that it serves the not-quite-brilliant equally well.

Here Mrs Shephard's rhetoric is found wanting. Merely urging examiners to "take into account" use of grammar and mental arithmetic does not address the problem of over-specialisation and narrow academic focus. Nor is the government's other stock answer, which is the AS-level, the so-called "half" A-level, so far promoted unsuccessfully.

Mr Blunkett is more persuasive, seeking to ensure that all 18-year- olds, apart from those with special needs, achieve the equivalent of five A, B or C passes at GCSE. This compares with the two-thirds reaching this level now. Using this standard as a platform, Mr Blunkett proposes an Advanced Diploma awarded to 18-year-olds passing a balanced package including three A-levels and an AS-level or vocational qualification, which would ensure that all arts students were numerate and all scientists literate. This would resemble the German Abitur (though not as broadly based), which is probably a better model than the French baccalaureate, and is a reasonable way of broadening A-levels while being sensitive to popular anxieties about diluting them.

These are the kinds of questions which should dominate the national debate on education, rather than side arguments about whether people should be allowed to use calculators. Instead, yesterday's report continued, by its very inconclusiveness, to allow the debate to drift aimlessly back into the obsession with declining A-level standards.

If there is evidence of schools "trading down" to "easier" exam boards, then Mrs Shephard - who has already said she "would not shrink from" cutting the number of exam boards - should set up a single national exam board. Yesterday's report suggested that there was some such evidence, contradicting another report from Newcastle University last year, which found that standards were comparable across boards. Has Mrs Shephard promised to nationalise exam boards? She has not.

Other countries are not like ours. The assumption that high-level education has to be rationed is an English disease. In 1950, only 5 per cent of French children took the baccalaureate. Now, 50 per cent do. In France, more and more children are expected to achieve this standard every year. In Germany and the Far East the assumptions are the same. The terms of the debate in this country have been changing for the better over the past 10 years. Mrs Shephard would be wrong to start turning her party's own clock back.