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Tuesday, 13 August, 2002, 17:44 GMT 18:44 UK
Warning over A-level results claims
A-level pass rate 1990-2001
Annual provisional figures. Source: QCA
Exam experts have given a warning that it is not possible accurately to compare this year's A-level results with those from previous years.

The system has changed - the first big upheaval since A-levels were introduced in 1951.

Officials at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) said one of the effects of the changes was likely to be that the pass rate would be inflated - and could be heading for 100%.

Their comments came as the School Standards Minister, David Miliband, said there was no evidence to suggest exam standards were slipping.

'Damaging' comments

The Conservatives are calling for an independent inquiry into the matter and for an overhaul of the exam system, following speculation that this year's A-level results will rise again.

The shadow education secretary, Damian Green, is also calling for AS-levels to be scrapped, saying older children are over-examined.

But the government has hit back at critics of the system, saying those who claim standards are falling are elitists, spouting a philosophy which is "profoundly damaging" for the future of the country.

Last year the final pass rate at A-level rose to 90.2% - the provisional figure, reported at this time a year ago, was 89.8%.

The results of the Scottish Highers were published on Tuesday - and showed a fall of 2.2 percentage points in the numbers who passed this year.

All change

The provisional A-level results for pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be released late on Wednesday - with students due to get their individual results on Thursday.

The results are the first following the Curriculum 2000 changes, intended to broaden post-16 study.

A-levels now comprise AS-levels, usually taken after the first year at advanced level - and pitched at a level that acknowledges that students have done less than a year's study - followed by A2s taken in the second year.

Candidates took A2s - which are pitched at a level higher than the "old" A-level - for the first time this summer.

The A-level is now a combination of the grades from the two parts.

100% pass rate

Most A2 students will already have done their AS-levels last year - so will have had a good indication of whether it was worth continuing with a subject, or wiser to drop it and settle for the AS qualification.

QCA officials would not reveal what this year's overall pass rate would be, except to say "there have been failures", ahead of a briefing on Wednesday by the Joint Council for General Qualifications, which issues the results on behalf of the exam boards.

But one official who used to be a school teacher said: "I would hope over the next two or three years, as a teacher, to be approaching a pass rate of 100%, simply because those students who would have failed would have walked."

The QCA will be scrutinising exam papers and candidates' scripts this year more than ever in the effort to try to ensure that standards are maintained - but says it does not intervene with the exam boards to tell them where to fix the boundaries between grades.

It trusts the examiners to get that right.

"It's a difficult job. It's complex, it's hard work and it's labour-intensive - people spend a lot of time and effort doing this," said one official.

Mr Miliband, writing in the Times newspaper, said the "standards are falling lobby" harked back to the days when only five or 10% of the population went to university.

David Miliband
No evidence of falling standards, says Education Minister David Miliband
"Their deeply pessimistic view of human potential pitches excellence for the best against achievement for the many," he wrote.

"This is incoherent and unwise."

More than 40% of students now go into higher education and the government aims to increase that figure to 50% by 2010.

Damian Green rejected Mr Miliband's criticism, describing it as a "tirade of abuse" against anyone who raised "the legitimate question that the exams appear to get easier".

The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, David Hart, said it was time to stop the annual allegations that higher results meant standards must be falling.

He said: "What we have got to do is not be rushed into panic measures such as proposing the abolition of AS-levels, which are the only game in town when it comes to broadening [the curriculum], but to take a long, cool look at how we can bring about changes which will take some of the pressures off students, which really are excessive."

Stephen Twigg, Schools Minister
"Standards in our schools are improving steadily"

Record passes again but are they easier?

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See also:

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