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Friday, 24 August, 2001, 16:08 GMT 17:08 UK
An A-level in four lessons
Exam hall
Brighter students or easier exams?
By BBC News Online's Katherine Sellgren

A sixth former has cast doubt on the standards of public examinations, after scoring a C in A-level business studies on the strength of four hours of private tuition.

Alex Hobbs, 17, from Goring near Reading, said standards must be falling, as he was "no genius".

It can't be right, can it? There has to be something going on with standards

Alex Hobbs
The teenager's claims follow a scathing attack on Thursday by retiring maths examiner, Jeffrey Robinson, who said pass marks at GCSE level were being systematically lowered.

Mr Robinson's allegations were fiercely rejected by the government, teachers' unions and examinations boards.

Alex, who starts in the upper sixth in September, went to a tutor three or four weeks before his exams for help with his AS-level in economics.

Last minute

His tutor, Chris Sivewright, persuaded him to do a full A-level in business studies as well as four AS-levels.

"I passed with a C grade - and as I got two Bs and two Cs in my AS results, it's clear that I'm not some sort of genius and the only other solution is that either A-level standards are slipping or I've got some sort of supertutor!" said Alex.

Chris Sivewright
Tutor Chris Sivewright says there is a silence of vested interest
"I was just overwhelmed, I wasn't expecting to get anything like that - I wasn't expecting to pass or maybe a D or an E at best.

"But it can't be right, can it? There has to be something going on with standards - they have to be going down.

"There's no way someone should be able to pass an A-level with four hours' tuition and reading a bit of a book," Alex said.


A spokeswoman from the Qualifications and Curriculum Agency said Alex was being humble and was clearly an intelligent young man, though not outstanding.

"We must remember that we're not talking about knowledge of the subject here - we're talking about passing an exam," she said.

The teenager would have been able to use transferable data and skills from his economics studies, she said.

Jeffrey Robinson
Retiring examiner Jeffrey Robinson said exam boards were massaging results upwards
"There is no evidence of standards falling, but there is now greater familiarity with the technique of taking exams, closer tuition from teachers and dedicated work on the part of pupils."

But Alex's tutor, Mr Sivewright, believes many public exams have got progressively easier over the years.

"If some of my A-grade candidates are getting too cocky, I just give them an old paper from a few years ago and they can't do it."

Some subjects were especially easy, he said.

"If people are good at economics and need another A-level, I tend to tell them to enrol for the business studies exam - they just turn up on the day and people pass!"

"I took an entire class through business studies A-level in two months and we got a 100% pass rate - and they were then free to do other A-levels," said Mr Sivewright.

'Vested interests'

Mr Sivewright, who is also principal of a tutorial college in Oxford, said too many people had got too much to lose by admitting exams were getting easier.

"If it was accepted that some A-levels are easy, universities would have to raise entrance levels and they've got all these spare places they want to fill, so they won't do that," he said.

Chris Woodhead
Chris Woodhead says the government is ignoring the issue
"The exam boards make a huge difference because they compete by dropping standards," he claimed.

"It's a cartel of vested interests because boards are businesses and they make a lot of money selling marking guidelines and courses.

"Chief examiners appear on commercially-run Easter courses and, of course, write text books - so clearly they have a vested interest in two-year courses that are supposedly difficult," he said.

It was known that some exam boards set tougher papers than others, he said.

"But it's a pity that only when people retire or leave, like Chris Woodhead, do they start making noises - why didn't they do it before?"

Woodhead attacks

The former chief inspector of schools, Chris Woodhead, said the government was failing to take claims of falling examination standards seriously.

Jeffrey Robinson was saying publicly what a number of chief examiners had being saying privately over the years, Mr Woodhead said.

"The fact that more people are getting university degrees doesn't mean that the university degrees maintain their intellectual rigour," he said.

"We've got 42% more candidates achieving top grades in GCSE than we did a decade ago, the minimum marks for the top grade in maths have been reduced by 25%.

"We've got a massive problem and the government refuses to acknowledge it."

Paul Sokoloff, convenor of the Joint Council Examining Board, said: "If you look at degree level pass rates they are going up year on year. I think it is the whole education system improving its performance."

On the Today programme:
Paul Sokoloff, convenor of the joint council of examining boards, and Chris Woodhead former chief inspector of schools
The BBC's Rory Mclean
"He believes it is happening in other subjects"
Exam results in the UK



Success stories


Row over new exams


See also:

16 Aug 01 | UK Education
23 Aug 01 | UK Education
23 Aug 01 | UK Education
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