Who cares if standards are falling?

For schools and teachers, the annual announcement of GCSE and A-level results is a classic no-win situation: whether passes are up or down, they will be taken as evidence of declining standards, the result of teachers' incompetence in one case and softer marking in the other. The spluttering fogies at the Daily Telegraph, the Institute of Directors and the older universities complain one minute that the rising numbers achieving grades A*-C at GCSE (equivalent to the old O-level passes) must be a fiddle and a scandal; next minute, they complain that the failure of half the nation's children to achieve such grades in five subjects must also be a scandal.

Nearly every examination reform of the past 30 years - including those introduced by Tory governments - has been designed to improve success rates. Most recently, ministers brought in the AS-level so that 17-year-olds could try out a wider range of subjects and then drop those they found too dreary or demanding. If the A-level pass rate has now soared to more than 94 per cent, we may conclude that the policy succeeded: fewer pupils are wasting two whole years on subjects for which they have no aptitude. Likewise, a wider range of examining techniques, particularly assessment of coursework at GCSE, was supposed to allow more pupils to shine. Most important, the absurd idea that a fixed proportion should fail every year (before the 1980s, it was 30 per cent at A-level), regardless of how well they did, has been dropped.

So is it easier than it was to get a given grade at A-level or GCSE? It is almost impossible to give a safe verdict, because syllabus content and the style of questions change so radically. Even in maths, which people imagine to be an unchanging subject, log tables have gone out, calculators have come in, and statistics are far more important than they were a couple of generations ago. Offices and factories, and the nature of work, have changed beyond recognition in the past two decades. Why should we expect schools, and the nature of exams, to remain frozen in the 1950s? In truth, the performance required to reach each GCSE or A-level grade probably slips very slightly each year. The pressures - from schools that want to meet targets and climb league tables, from ministers who want evidence of success for their policies, from parents and pupils desperate for credentials, from the examiners' natural anxiety to avoid injustice - are too great to be resisted by vague, abstract notions of upholding standards.

But does it matter? The word "qualification" is a misnomer. School-leaving exams do not actually qualify anybody for anything; no bridges will collapse or heart patients die because there was a fudge at the boundaries of grades C and D in the GCSEs. The exams are merely sifting devices, controlling entry to various levels of the labour market and to further stages of education and training. The certificates are essentially a form of currency that "buys" access to jobs, professions and universities. When large numbers of young people were needed to enter unskilled manual work, in such industries as coal, steel and shipbuilding, the currency was quite naturally rationed; millions of young people were told that they were too stupid or too mentally lazy even to attempt the exams. If too many had got A-levels or degrees, there would have been crippling labour shortages. Now, with the growth of professional, middle-class jobs, based on the kind of verbal, numerical and IT skills that are taught in schools, too many failures would create a parallel problem. No employer or profession bothers much about what leads to school certificates - unlike, say, professional engineering, accountancy or medical exams, GCSEs and A-levels do not measure specific competencies, even though the exam boards, in recent years, have sometimes tried to make them do so. The demand for school qualifications just signifies that a job requires more than brawn and hard labour.

We may reasonably ask whether we need such an elaborate and expensive edifice of examining. At the beginning of the 20th century, librarians, for example, needed nothing more than an interest in books. Later, they needed five O-levels, then one A-level, then two A-levels, and now they need degrees. It is not clear that libraries are dramatically better as a result. But the issue of falling standards is a red herring. We cannot know they are falling, and it does not greatly matter if they are. The point has been to raise young people's sights, to persuade them that they can soar beyond their own class, to cure what Aneurin Bevan called the poverty of aspiration. Behind the contrived rage over rising GCSE and A-level success rates lies an old British complaint: that what was once the preserve of an elite is now available to the masses.

Nothing to lose but our aitches

In the 1930s, George Orwell wrote: "We of the sinking middle class . . . may sink without further struggles into the working class . . . and probably when we get there it will not be so dreadful as we feared, for, after all, we have nothing to lose but our aitches." Now, according to MORI, the middle class is not so much sinking as plunging and, far from bothering to struggle, is doing so with a song in its heart. This year, 68 per cent of the British agreed that "at the end of the day, I'm working class and proud of it" - a proportion far higher than the Registrar-General would accept as working class, and higher than in previous surveys. A Labour MP, moreover, has claimed Cherie Blair for the workers, though, as a glance at any footballer shows, hers is not a working-class neck. But the British have always liked exclusivity. Now that the working class, after the decline of heavy industry, has acquired rarity value, everybody wants to belong to it.