Not A-level playing field


The Guardian, Friday 17 August 2007

The symphony was well-rehearsed. Trumpet blasts of teen success were mixed with melancholy refrains of disappointment, and through it all fogies sounded stern bass notes about the debasement of education. Yesterday's A-level results provoked all the usual reactions, with the grumbling undertones this year taking the form of concern about the one entry in four that is now being awarded the top A grade. Traditionalists bemoaned the difficulties this posed for elite universities, who are trying to pick between the very brightest students. Even if they have a point, it should be addressed by the more stretching syllabuses which kick in next year, and by the ministerial suggestion that universities will get more general access to details on precisely how well each individual has performed. But when many 18-year-olds have no qualifications at all, sorting between the mere 3% who score three straight As is hardly Britain's most pressing educational problem.

A more serious concern is that some of the success may come at the price of an educationally narrowing focus on exam preparation over wider reading and discussion. That risk is an especially serious one for a generation of 18-year-olds who experienced schooling as a continuous series of hurdles, with formal tests at 7, 11, 14, 16 and 17. But there is no doubting that the results reflect hard work, on the part of both students and teachers: despite carping about a switch towards supposedly softer subjects, yesterday's figures showed an increase in entries for hard sciences, such as chemistry and maths.

Amid the traditional arguments, however, one serious alarm sounded more clearly than before. The established performance gap between fee-paying and state schools has become starker. Over the last five years the proportion of As in the fee-paying sector has gone up by more than six percentage points; in comprehensives, by contrast, the increase is less than three points. True, state grammars have done better. But any suggestion that they offer a route to improve overall standards is killed off by the reality that the remaining secondary moderns - which are their inescapable flipside - have failed to improve their tally of As at all. Looking across the state sector as a whole, the shortfall in As compared to private schools has widened by around 50% over the last decade.

This differential has attracted far less attention than the recent student-finance reforms, but it represents a far more significant loading of life's dice in favour of the privileged. Despite the introduction of £3,000-per-year top-up fees last autumn, the signs are that university admissions are rising, suggesting that the absolute level of borrowing may be less of a barrier to entry for poorer youngsters than immediate issues of cash flow. Expanded bursaries, the new maintenance grants and the abolition of upfront fees will all help in regard to the latter, as will the government's recent decision to make the new grants more widely available. This month a survey suggested that the proportion of students doing paid work in term-time was edging down. That could be a sign that student purse strings are not quite as tight as they were.

But even if that is right - and it is too early to tell - top universities will continue to under-represent the majority of students whose parents did not pay for their schooling. For, given the sort of skewed exam results unveiled yesterday, worthwhile schemes to widen access will resemble running up an escalator that is going down. RH Tawney called the system of educational selection by parental bank balance "the hereditary curse upon English education". Gordon Brown, too, seems to grasp that the attainment gap is a problem, which is why he has pledged to raise the resources invested in state pupils to make them comparable with those already enjoyed in the private sector. That pledge, however, remains less than binding, for as long as it lacks a timetable. The right response to yesterday's results is for Mr Brown to provide one.