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Monday, 12 August, 2002, 17:43 GMT 18:43 UK
A-level row upsets students
students celebrating exam results
Researchers say students are better prepared
The annual row about A-level standards has started early - with research suggesting students feel they will be robbed of their big day.

The provisional A-level results for England, Wales and Northern Ireland are due to be published late on Wednesday, with individual students getting their results on Thursday morning.

Expectations are of another rise in the standard - which would be the 19th in a row - inevitably prompting a feeling in some quarters that the exams are getting easier.

Some are now calling for the process to be split, so that the national results are published some weeks after the youngsters get the individual certificates which determine whether they have done well enough to get onto their chosen university courses.

Last year, the A-level pass rate reached 90.2%, according to final figures from the Joint Council for General Qualifications.

AS-level effect

This week's figures are expected to show another improvement.

One probable reason for this is an unintended effect of the new AS-levels - the exams taken after the first year of advanced level study.

In the past, students might have taken internal "mock" exams as a check on their progress towards their eventual A-level results.

But this year's students are the first to have taken formal, public exams - and if they did badly might be expected not to have pursued the subject into a second year.

As a rule of thumb, schools would have discouraged those who did not get at least a D grade.

For that reason, there is expected to be a marked drop in the numbers having taken maths, which more than 28% failed at AS-level.

Improvement explained

Research carried out by the University of Nottingham has found that this year's A-level students - who have been "guinea pigs" for educational change throughout their schooling - fear that when they get their results their achievements will be attacked.

Professor Roger Murphy of Nottingham's school of education said they believed they had had to work extremely hard to "get through all the hoops", and felt the people criticising their efforts did not understand this.

Of 400 students surveyed, 70% believed their results would be met with negative media coverage, while 60% said the poor press would be encouraged by sceptical comment from employers' groups.

But he had spoken to a wide range of prominent people closely involved with the process and they were "highly relaxed" about the phenomenon of exam results improving over time.

"They were all quick to point out how much the school curriculum has changed in recent years - a factor that makes any highly scientific comparisons of the comparability of standards over long periods of time completely impossible," he said.

Better prepared

Among other things, better assessment techniques allowed students more scope to demonstrate their achievements.

Schools and students were focusing more on exam work.

Students had better information about how to get good grades.

They were also more motivated to get higher grades to go on to university or get jobs in sectors which were gradually increasing the qualifications they required.

Healthier and brighter

What is more, Prof Murphy said, there were social changes to take into account.

Young people taking exams now were more likely to come from professional families, and home background was well known to be an extremely strong predictor of educational success.

Another striking factor was the major gains women made in the 1970s and 1980s in improving their school and university qualifications.

Many of them were now the mothers of students taking exams, confirming what development workers had always said - investing in the education of women had a powerful, long-term effect on future generations.

Plus there was good evidence to suggest young people were healthier and even more intelligent than their predecessors.


The head of policy at the Institute of Directors, Ruth Lea, has for some years been saying that A-level standards are not what they used to be.

She has again called for an end to the "sterile debate" but said that could only happen if the government stopped being "dishonest" and admitted that A-levels were now too easy.

"I'm afraid the sterile debate will go on because we have no reason to change our mind," she said.

"We see the evidence that we see, and why should we change our mind when it is so overwhelming?"

Students she knew told her they felt hurt by such comments, and she felt sorry for them.

"But the fact is they are being led a sorry dance, they are being betrayed by the education establishment and a government that is not being honest with them, especially as today's students are under a great deal more pressure than I was when I was at school."

Standards check

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority commissioned an international panel to scrutinise its efforts to maintain standards.

The panel reported in January that the authority had done a good job.

But it also said: "There is no scientific way to determine in retrospect whether standards have been maintained."

And the experts said examiners might have allowed "grade inflation" to happen without meaning to.

The scope for this lay in the fact that they had to decide where the boundary mark should be between exam grades each year, there being a natural tendency towards generosity.

Dr David Milstead of the department of physics at the University of Liverpool has investigated the changing nature of the A and AS-level physics programme.

This included a quantitative study of the papers, diagnostic tests for undergraduates with older and more recent examination questions, and a poll of teachers.

"Each element of the study indicated that A-level physics had become easier over time and even the majority of teachers attributed rising pass rates over the past decade to this," he said.

The BBC's James Westhead
"This annual row is likely to cast a shadow over their hard-won achievements"

Record passes again but are they easier?

BBC Radio 1: One Life advice service
BBC results helpline

See also:

12 Aug 02 | UK Education
09 Aug 02 | UK Education
23 Nov 01 | UK Education
08 Aug 02 | Scotland
17 Jan 02 | UK Education
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