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Friday, 24 August 2007

24 August 2007

August is always a strange month for news: lots of politicians are on holiday, so there’s less of the usual sort of news about. But there’s one story we can always rely on – the publication of the GCSE and A level exam results. (If you’re reading this in Scotland or overseas, you are now excused, although some of the issues I want to raise are, I think, universal.)

Isn’t it terrible the way everyone seems to pass these days? Sorry, let me rephrase that: isn’t it wonderful the way the results get better every year? So which is it? Should we be celebrating the fact that each year, more and more candidates pass their exams? Or should we be mourning the “lowering of standards”?

For as long as I can remember, we have been asking these questions every August. And I think the fact that we still don’t seem to be able to agree on answers reflects our continuing confusion about what exams are actually designed to do.

My teacher friends tell me that exams should test what pupils have learned and understood and their ability to think for themselves. But universities and employers want exams to tell them who are the best and the brightest. If everyone gets an A at A level, teachers are delighted, but how do we know who’s best?

Except, of course, everyone doesn’t get an A at A level (it was 25 per cent this year, one per cent more than last year). Nor does everyone get a decent grade in their GCSEs. The results published yesterday show that just under two-thirds of GCSE candidates got a C grade or better – which means that more than one in three didn’t. Is that good news or bad?

But you know, and I know, that there are plenty of school-leavers who get very good A level results yet aren’t exactly champions at grammar or spelling, or indeed at basic maths. (Oh, all right, there are plenty of university graduates, too. Yes, and journalists …) Some university tutors and employers find that deeply depressing. Others are more relaxed.

Me? I’m rotten at illustrated calligraphy on vellum. And I wouldn’t know one end of a long-bow from the other. There was a time when I was rather good at changing typewriter ribbons – but I’m not sure I worry too much that my son doesn’t have a clue. Maybe our skills needs do change over time – and maybe in a computer age of Spellcheck and SMS text messaging, spelling doesn’t matter as much as it used to. Then again, maybe it does …

I think I’m allowed by the BBC’s rules on impartiality to say that, personally, I hate it when people can’t spell. And I’ve joined a group on Facebook called the Good Grammar Cult, which tells you where I stand on grammar. (Thanks, by the way, to everyone who’s joined me on Facebook … it’s fun, isn’t it?) But the exam debate is a complicated one – which is probably a good thing, because it gives us lots to talk about every August. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

Now, let’s see what the weather is like over the weekend, because I bet my old newspaper colleagues are already brushing off their other favourite August headline: “It’s a Bank Holiday Washout!”

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