A-levels: improving no more | Editorial

The pattern of results, the total number of college places and its distribution continue to flow from Whitehall decisions

Before the brief cheer of the Olympic season, we joked that if moaning were a competitive sport, then Britain could grab gold. Thursday’s A-level results could have provided the chance for a return to miserabilist form. For, after decades in which improving marks have sparked panic about a debasement of the educational currency, we experienced the novelty of top A and A* grades becoming a little rarer. The drop from 27.0% to 26.6% was not large, but would it be enough for the familiar row about lower standards to be displaced by an argument about worse performance?

In the event, and hearteningly, there was no great outpouring of rage or anxiety about the results. The previous hysteria about grade inflation was overdone – students and teachers these days work somewhat harder, and also focus more ruthlessly on the tests; both developments have pushed up exam performance. But a new panic about the end of this progress would be equally misplaced. For the slow upward march of the A grade has not just been driven by real performance, but also by competing exam boards making themselves more attractive to schools by seeing to it that they delivered the “right” results. Assessment was tightened up a little, and the regulator Ofqual added a few pragmatic fixes to provide checks through comparisons with results from previous years. There is no truly objective way to assess education, but yesterday’s results were at least compatible with a sensible balance having been struck.

So, the exam system as a whole notched up a pass, but it is important to spare a thought for the hundreds of thousands of youngsters exposed to a slightly more stringent regime. This cohort is, after all, the first to be exposed to the new £9,000 university fees. Fewer of them applied to college as a likely consequence, and – after Thursday’s marginally lower marks – there was a sharp drop, of around 7% over the year, in the numbers admitted on to courses. The coalition thinks in terms of a free educational market, but the rationing of subsidy is such that colleges are mostly constrained. The only real freedom applies at the very top end, where they have been given flexibility to provide extra places to students with grades of AAB or higher.

With public funds tight, there are few easy answers, but after Michael Gove’s botched promise to reinvent CSEs for lower performers, ministers need to be especially wary of appearing elitist. The rhetoric of devolution and freedom cannot disguise that the pattern of results, the total number of college places and its distribution between institutions all continue to flow from Whitehall decisions. Those who have just sat their A-levels will know where to point the finger if the system fails to help them weather hard times.

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