No golden age of A-levels

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The Independent Online
Once again Britain's 18-year-olds have produced a record result. Once again a higher proportion than ever before have passed their A-levels and achieved top grades. And once again the cry has gone up that standards must be falling.

This is both difficult and dangerous territory. Of course standards matter. Anyone who has ever watched A-level examiners at work would know just how seriously, year on year, they take them. But the evidence that standards are falling is thin. And the idea that we can suddenly go back and compare A-level standards with those of some ancient golden age in the Fifties or Sixties is a myth. Not least there is the motivation of those who believe that the only explanation for more and better passes is that exams are getting easier.

Of course more 18-year-olds are passing A-levels. Back in the Fifties, A-levels were the exam of the elite. Just 3 per cent took them. Today 40 per cent do. They are a mass exam offering entry to a welcome and increasingly mass system of higher education. Even so, 17 per cent fail and another 13 per cent drop out of the A-level course.

And the world has changed in other ways. Even if the scripts existed, it would be impossible to go back and compare today's A-levels with those of the Sixties. In those days, Venn diagrams were part of additional maths at O-level. These days, six- and seven-year-olds learn them in primary school. In the early Sixties, the way in which DNA works was just creeping on to the A-level syllabus. Now it is one of the early parts of the A- level course.

In the Fifties, it is true that no one took A-levels in business studies. But the A-levels of the Fifties were equipping an elite for highly academic courses in a tiny university sector in a country where most jobs were still blue-collar. Today we hope to be equipping a nation to compete in a white-collar world of business, services and industry where computers control the lathes and where the skills of how to look up knowledge and apply it are at least as important as the skills of memory and recall. Of course examinations have changed.

The argument that more children cannot possibly be doing better reflects exactly the same elitist view of human nature which believed in the Fifties that there was only a certain fixed "pool" of intelligence. It was that view which maintained that only 20 per cent of children could be bright enough to go to grammar school because there were in fact only 20 per cent of places available in grammar schools. And it is the same view which led Kingsley Amis to pronounce of university expansion that "more will mean worse" - shortly before the Robbins report demonstrated that the so-called "pool" of intelligence was in fact a great lake.

A-levels should not be a competition that a set number have to fail but a set of standards - which will inevitably evolve upwards in terms of knowledge and content over time - that we want people to achieve.

Which is not an argument for complacency. Rigour is required, year on year, to ensure standards do not fall as the content and subject matter of A-levels evolve. But schools and their examinations should be windows to the future, not fogged mirrors reflecting a golden age that never was.