Grade inflation, Rhodes Boyson and shooting chief execs

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

When you listen to the row over this year’s GCSE results, you might think a C grade was some fixed, verifiable quantity like the distance from London to Manchester or the value of pi. In reality, exam success rates are determined by economic requirements.

Whatever the examinations industry tells you, it is impossible to guarantee that a C grade in, say, physics can be the same for an exam taken in 2012 as for one taken in 1990. Both subject content and examining methods have changed drastically. The claim that grades can be comparable over different subjects is equally absurd. In what sense can a grade B in maths be deemed equivalent to a grade B in art?

Exams are rationing devices. For more than 30 years, politicians argued that, if we are to compete with China and India, we need more highly qualified workers and should therefore increase the education rations. Grade inflation occurs at every level, including in universities where more than 60 per cent now get Firsts and Upper Seconds against barely half (of a much smaller cohort) in the 1990s. It isn’t confined to this country: grade inflation is pretty much a worldwide phenomenon.

Now, politicians sing a different tune. We need to cut wages and increase working hours, they suggest, so that we can compete with Asia in sweated labour. Besides, we’re running short of funds and can’t support so many universities and degree courses. So we should reduce the rations and produce fewer young people qualified for higher education and professional jobs. That is why grade inflation has been abruptly halted and replaced by grade deflation, with thousands of 16-year-olds disappointed by this year’s results.

You’re fired

The Leicestershire couple who were arrested for firing at burglars are described by the Daily Mail as “law-abiding” while their local Tory MP, Alan Duncan, speaks of “a straightforward case of someone using a shotgun to defend themselves”. There seem to be category errors here. First, firing guns at humans is, I believe, against UK law. Second, the vast majority of us do not own shotguns and must find other ways to defend ourselves and our property. The use of a shotgun, therefore, even if it is legally owned, is anything but straightforward.

The law allows householders to use “reasonable force” in self-defence. The government plans a “clarification”. But laws are sometimes best left unclarified, allowing police, prosecutors, judges and juries to make decisions according to the circumstances of a case.

Governments should think carefully before committing anything to statute that appears to condone violence. Burglary is distressing to its victims but so is mis-selling by financial institutions. Will the government allow us to fire shotguns at the chairmen and CEOs of banks?

Ken’s a Willie

What is the point of Ken Clarke’s post-reshuffle role as “wise head” without portfolio? I suspect the Tories have a new Willie Whitelaw in mind. He served alongside Margaret Thatcher throughout her years in office, providing her government with an affable and vaguely liberal veneer and making no perceptible difference to anything it decided to do. Clarke has enjoyed a distinguished ministerial career but vanity has always been his weakness. He will be allowed his say in cabinet and ministers will nod patiently, trying to look interested as people do when old folk ramble on. But they will not really be listening, still less will they act on his “wisdom”. Clarke is flattering himself if he thinks otherwise.

Rhodes to ruin

In the early 1970s, the Daily Telegraph newsroom had a notice instructing hacks that “anything Dr Rhodes Boyson says is news”. Boyson, who died on 28 August, later became a Tory education minister but he was then a backbench MP, already well known from his former position as a traditionalist headteacher and scourge of what he called “the millennialist left”. Journalists adored him because he was so fertile with controversial opinions, delivered in convenient soundbites.

What I most enjoyed, however, was the account he gave me of the passing, at 88, of his father, a former union official and Labour councillor in Lancashire. With the old man on his deathbed as the February 1974 election took place, Boyson explained that he would shortly take his Commons seat, representing a party his father had loathed all his life. A slow smile crossed Boyson, Sr’s face and he said: “The first time you speak from those benches, you look up and I’ll look down.” Then he died. “It was a good death,” declared Boyson, Jr.

Ever since, I have thought there ought to be a Lancastrian word for schmaltz.

Work programme

The trouble with computers, suggests my esteemed fellow columnist Nicholas Lezard, is that, because you don’t make a noise, people think you aren’t working, thus adding to the perception that writing isn’t proper work anyway. There is a simple solution: Nick should follow my example (and Gordon Brown’s, I am told), which is to treat the computer as though it were a typewriter and tap the keys vigorously, using the two index fingers only. My study is over a room where my wife frequently entertains friends. “What is that noise?” they ask. “That’s Peter working,” my wife explains. I am told they look suitably impressed.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 10 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Autumn politics special