A-levels: a crisis contrived by an elite

One of the oddest characteristics of English public life is how an elite group can seize the media agenda and cause ministers to cower in terror. Witness not only the Countryside March but also the A-level "fixing scandal". The charge is that education ministers colluded with officials at their quango, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), and with the chief executive of the exam boards, to raise standards for A-level grades so that more pupils would fail. Bizarrely, the charge is made most ferociously by those who normally complain about falling standards.

This vociferous lobby must know (but would prefer the public not to understand) that adjusting levels at which grades are awarded is what the bosses of the exam boards do year after year. Fixing the results is their job. Pupils first get percentage marks for their work, and these are listed in rank order: nobody suggests the marks themselves were altered, and it would be a true scandal if they were. All the exam boards did - with the bosses making final adjustments - was decide which bands of marks were worth which grades.

This was trickier than usual this summer because A-levels have been reformed and, in effect, the boards are marking new exams. Neither ministers nor QCA officials have any role in awarding grades, but, reasonably enough, with the likes of Chris Woodhead, the former chief inspector, and the Daily Mail's Melanie Phillips breathing heavily across the airwaves, they told the exam boards to make specially sure that standards hadn't slipped. On 29 July, Sir William Stubbs, the QCA chairman, e-mailed Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, to say that early analysis suggested the pass rate was up by 2 to 4 per cent and A grades (there are five pass grades in all) were "broadly stable". If she and he then tried to fiddle the results downwards, they made a poor job of it: the pass rate turned out to be up 4.5 per cent, A grades up 2.1 per cent.

So what really happened? A few pupils, nearly all in fee-charging schools, received strange results: solid As and Bs and then a fail in one part (or module) of one subject, usually a part involving coursework. This might be explained by some horrendous clerical error; but if there were one, it would have been exposed by now. The plausible explanation - indeed, the only explanation for the heavy concentration of such results in particular schools - is that these pupils' teachers underestimated or misunderstood what was required. Posh schools are not very experienced in coursework and generally take a snooty view of it, preferring the traditional three-hour exam. But to admit that they blundered (as one state school already has) would be death. Why should anybody shell out thousands in fees for a school that can't put children through exams efficiently? August is a sensitive time for these schools because the broadsheets publish league tables while the parents of next year's intakes are weighing up their options. The fee-charging sector, moreover, has long wanted to discredit A-levels, which are now passed by far too many state school oiks. They want to replace it with the International Baccalaureate, which, because it involves six subjects plus epistemology, plus lots of sport and art, would put ill-resourced state schools at a distinct disadvantage, and hugely strengthen the pressures on parents to pay high fees.

Who can blame them? Business is business, and these schools run a smart PR operation. But ministers should not allow them to get away with it. The scandal is not Ms Morris's vigilance in maintaining standards, but her over-wrought response to a contrived crisis, and her failure to tell an old English elite to go and stuff itself.

The dossier changes nothing

Most people, if they are honest, will confess that the technicalities of the debate on Saddam Hussein's weapons capabilities are beyond them. Tony Blair's dossier provides little enlightenment and was never likely to, as most of the new assertions depend on intelligence that is necessarily vague. Ministers are no better equipped than the rest of us to judge whether a grainy photograph actually shows a missile site, much less whether it is a threatening one. Equally, the journalists now touring factories in Iraq wouldn't know a phial of Sarin from a thimble of finest malt.

A few things stand out. Saddam wants uranium (we knew that; that's why we have sanctions), but, even if he got it, he would need a factory to make nuclear bombs. He would also need the means to deliver them and other weapons of mass destruction. The dossier's claim that he can "deploy" them within 45 minutes produces the dramatic headlines that Alastair Campbell no doubt demanded. But what does it mean? Deployed how, where, against whom? According to Scott Ritter, ex-head of the UN inspection team, the designs of "enthusiastic amateurs" which the team saw up to 1998 would produce rockets "that would spin and cartwheel . . . go north instead of south . . . blow up". Iraq would have to test missiles. The tests would be detectable and presumably the sites could be bombed. So where lies the argument for all-out war?

The best reading of the evidence is that a pre-emptive strike is proposed against a man who is not yet a danger but is trying (with limited success) to become one - albeit possibly for defensive or deterrent purposes. If you think it is worth big risks to overthrow murderous tyrants (as some NS writers do), you will support war. If you think war is morally indefensible, except against clear or imminent aggression (as do other NS writers, including the editor), you will oppose it. Mr Blair's dossier will change nobody's mind.