A-levels are just rationing devices

This year, the annual argument over A-levels and the alleged decline in standards began even be-fore the results were published. And why not? Nobody has ever bothered with the facts on this matter before putting finger to keyboard or mouth to microphone. Nothing creates such apoplexy among the British elite as the idea that what was once available only to themselves - in this case, educational achievement and university places - should now be available to the masses.

A-level pass rates have risen for 22 consecutive years and as many as one in five of the entrants now receives an A grade. A-levels must therefore be easier than they were, the critics say, either because the questions are less challenging or because the marking is more lenient or both. In response, David Miliband, the schools standards minister, insists that the teaching is better and the pupils harder-working. The sort of intelligence that enables people to pass A-levels does not exist in some fixed quantity, he says; education tries to develop intelligence, and in recent years it has done so.

Mr Miliband has the better case, but the whole argument is spurious. The rise in pass rates should not surprise us in the least. Fifty-one years ago, nobody had run a four-minute mile. It is not suggested that the mile has since got shorter or that stopwatches have been rigged. We accept that coaching and training techniques have improved out of recognition, that facilities are far superior, that athletes have better diets and that their expectations of what they can achieve have risen. Likewise, teachers are smarter at drilling pupils for exams, classes are smaller and schools better equipped. Millions of children enjoy quiet, warm, comfortable places to study at home as they would not have done 50 years ago. Information, both from the internet and from books around the home, is more plentiful. Parents, educated to a higher level themselves, hold greater expectations for their children and can offer better support. Moreover, every exam reform of the past 30 years - whether introduced by Tory or by Labour ministers - has been designed to close the gap between pupils' potential and achievement. For example, a wider range of assessment methods gives bright candidates who are not at their best in traditional three-hour written exams a chance to shine. Does this make exams easier? Only in the same sense that better athletics tracks make running the mile easier.

The arguments over A-levels betray confusion about their function. They do not test a specific body of skills or know-ledge in the way that a medical or accountancy exam does; they are not guarantors of competence, protecting the public against misdiagnosis of disease or against false company accounts. They are rationing devices, which regulate entry to universities and professions. This was explicitly recognised before 1987, when grades were awarded to fixed percentages of the entrants, with the top 10 per cent getting As and the bottom 30 per cent being failed. Even if standards were then rising, they could not be reflected in the grades awarded; nor, for that matter, could we know if standards were falling.

Now, rightly or wrongly, it is judged that society and the economy need more graduates and more professionally qualified people. Jobs that formerly required at most the equivalent of GCSEs now require A-levels. If as many as 30 per cent were still failed, hospitals would be denuded of nurses and libraries of librarians. (It may be argued that entry thresholds to such jobs should be lower, but that is an entirely separate question.) In reality, however, the argument is not so much about A-level pass rates as about the apparent ease of getting the A grade. Here, it is judged, the exam fails in its rationing function, because it no longer provides sufficiently fine distinctions among bright entrants to allow Oxford, Cambridge and other elite universities to select the very best performers. Mr Miliband appears to sympathise, and hints that he may introduce some kind of super A grade.

But why should a Labour government strive to help Oxford and Cambridge perpetuate an elitist system? A new, more exclusive top grade would clearly help the fee-charging schools, which have the resources to cram candidates for the best results and entry exams that ensure they recruit children who can achieve such results. They could then step up the marketing of their unique selling point: their capacity to deliver elite university places. It is harder to see how the new grade would benefit the country. By what right do Oxford and Cambridge lay claim to the "best" students? Who is to say that Wolverhampton or Kingston, ex-polytechnics with a stronger vocational bent, should not have them? Labour should work for a system that spreads talent more widely.

A magazine for the family

After stealing the Tories' policies, new Labour has inevitably gone on to steal the Tories' wives. But that the wife should be Kimberly Fortier, publisher of the Spectator, seems surprising. Isn't that magazine the enemy of those who undermine the family? Alas, no: it may still get its politics from the Telegraph, but it now gets its morals from the Daily Sport. First, there was the columnist who denounced the permissive society by day while hiring prostitutes by night. Then a writer left his wife and children for a floozie on the reception desk. Now we have Ms Fortier, who made a move on an old man who was in no position to see her coming. NS staff, by contrast, are faithful and pure (arts writers obviously excepted). True moralists should abandon the Spectator and join us. We will uphold family values - and urge antisocial behaviour orders against the Home Secretary, his mistress and all their Tory accomplices.