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Page last updated at 15:04 GMT, Thursday, 20 August 2009 16:04 UK

Is taking an A-level easier 20 years on?

John Hand revising

By John Hand
BBC News

In 1989 I got a B, a C and a D for my A-levels. Good grades, and achieved when exams were tougher - or were they? To find out, I've just taken another exam.

It was all so different 20 years ago. Finding out my A-level results involved a trip to my sixth form college to rip open a small brown envelope, rather than clicking on an internet link.

Back in 1989, there was no newspaper photographer on hand to capture the traditional image of three pretty blonde girls (ideally triplets) jumping in the air waving envelopes crammed with A grades.

Pretty girls celebrate
Results day is now a media event

I'm neither blond nor pretty, but I was jumping with delight at the B-C-D that meant I was officially a clever clogs, without being a complete brainiac.

Like anyone who took A-levels in years gone, I now add this caveat - then a B, C or D was a good mark. Nowadays A grades are so common, many people fear they have become devalued, pointing out that A* grades are being introduced from next year to truly define the best of the best.

But could it be simply that today's pupils are a little bit brighter or better schooled than those who went before?

After all, on the athletics track - where performance can more easily be measured across history - we have just witnessed a World Championships 100m final in which even the also-rans would have left great champions of the 1980s in the dust.

Are exam result critics the equivalent of a baggy-shorted veteran runner moaning that Usain Bolt can only do what he does because running shoes are lighter, track surfaces are better, and he's coached to "make the grade" just once a year?

An elusive A

Partly in order to find out how easy it is to bag a modern A-level, five years ago I decided to start learning Italian from scratch.

Graph of UK A level results 2002-2009

I found that - just like in my teenage years - the leap from GCSE (I gained an A* two years ago) to A-level exposed chasm-like gaps in my knowledge and abilities. Suddenly a couple of hours a week in an evening class wasn't really going to be enough - the syllabus was aimed at students doing six hours of lessons each week, supplemented by homework assignments.

So how did I do? A click on that all-important results link reveals I have a fourth A-level to my name - at grade C.

So what has the exercise taught me, apart from a useful command of Italian?

I learned that modern exams still provide a useful all-round test of the average 18-year-old student. My Italian A-level included an oral presentation, a debate with an examiner, questions about a passage of Italian on tape, translation of a passage from English to Italian, essays and a literature paper based on the study of two novels.

Modern History - B (1989)
Maths & Statistics - C (1989)
English Language - D (1989)
Italian - C (2009)

So does this provide any insight into whether A-levels have got easier? My approach wasn't scientific - I wasn't retaking the same subjects I studied at 18, and, as a journalist, I am well versed in the art of gaining short-term knowledge of a subject.

Even so, I outperformed my 1989 D grade for English Language Studies, based on a couple of hours of Italian study each week.

If I had the full six hours of classroom time each week, maybe I too would be in possession of an A grade.

But having seen the range of skills needed to gain top marks, it is important to value the efforts of those 18-year-olds who have done well today.

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