Star pupils and self-service specialists

A* at A-level will help universities pick candidates from fee-charging schools while self-service su

We should wish Alan Milburn luck in his new job as the government's "social mobility tsar". But unless he persuades the government to tackle the disproportionate share of elite university places - and, by extension, elite professional jobs - taken by pupils from fee-charging schools, he will be wasting his time.

A new problem has just arisen. This year's A-level results include, for the first time, the award of an A* grade. For years, public schools and elite universities grumbled that A grades went to more than a quarter of candidates. This made it impossible, they argued, for schools to "stretch and challenge" the most able, and for Oxford and Cambridge to "discriminate" between the (supposedly) brilliant minds fit to receive the world's most expensive and highly subsidised education and the oiks who are merely very good. A* was the answer.

This year, Cambridge (though not Oxford, which will wait to see how the new marking system works) is demanding at least one A* from 93 per cent of entrants. As predicted, the proportion of exam candidates from fee-charging schools awarded an A* is at least three times higher than the proportion from state schools. The former have the resources to help pupils cram. They can also afford to send teachers on the "aiming for the A*" courses (explaining the necessary exam "techniques" or tricks) for which the highly commercialised exam boards (one is owned by the publishing conglomerate Pearson) charge several hundred pounds.

You can see why fee-charging schools wanted the new grade - if they can't demonstrate an edge over the state sector, they'll be out of business. Universities should know better. A-levels reward exam technique, not original and creative minds. Emphasis should be on applicants' potential, not grades achieved in a system rigged against comprehensives. The new grade will legitimise, and probably increase, the admissions bias, which gives more than 40 per cent of Oxbridge places to the 7 per cent who attend fee-charging schools. Why Labour allowed it to go ahead is a mystery.

Science fiction

Despite (or perhaps because of) Michael How­ard's demand for a full inquest into Dr David Kelly's death, I still believe, as I wrote last month, that it was suicide, as do his wife and children. Newspapers have ratcheted up this story by quoting assorted "medical experts" who doubt the official version. They include a radiologist, an epidemiologist, a vascular surgeon, a trauma surgeon and a retired coroner.

I don't doubt they know more about blood and arteries than I do. But none is a forensic pathologist, who would be the relevant "expert" on sudden death in the woods.

Treating "medical experts" as though they were a homogeneous category, fit to pass opinion on anything to do with the human body, is a typical press trick. Journalists do the same with "scientists", so that on, say, global warming, the views of an astronomer or molecular biologist are sufficient to refute a consensus of nearly all the world's climatologists.

Mail bonding

The fuss about mixed-sex wards, which so exercise the Daily Mail and which Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, has pledged to abolish by the end of the year, strikes me as quaint and puzzling. It seems odd that a government striving to cut spending gives such priority to something that affects only one in ten hospitals, where conversion costs have until now been judged prohibitive. When the Mail refers to "wards of shame", in which "men and women are separated by nothing more than a curtain", I wonder who is supposed to be ashamed of what. If I'm ever in hospital, I couldn't care less if there's a woman in the next bed. But I wouldn't like to be anywhere near Paul Dacre, the Mail editor, even with a curtain between us.

The scan man

The supermarkets' latest wheeze is the self-service checkout, where you scan in goods yourself. No doubt they intend to phase out all other channels, destroying jobs, depriving customers of what little personal contact shopping still allows, and maximising profits.

As a socialist, I decline to use the new channels. However, leaving Sainsbury's the other day with modest purchases of salad leaves and orange juice, I found all fast channels, for those carrying hand baskets, closed. To avoid queuing behind people apparently preparing for a civil emergency, I had no alternative to the self-service checkout. Taking advantage of being old (well, oldish), I enlisted an assistant, dropped things as often as possible and pretended to find scanning an impossible challenge to my geriatric brain. By taking up far more of her time than she would have spent serving me in the usual way, I helped preserve her job and cancelled out the profits.

Unfortunately, it took far more of my time, too. Oscar Wilde complained that socialism interfered with one's evenings. Now it interferes with the mornings as well.

Gordon of Amazon

On 12 August, the Daily Telegraph reported that Gordon Brown's book The Change We Choose, a collection of his speeches, was languishing at 262,956th on the Amazon bestseller list, having allegedly sold only 32 copies since publication in April. Five days later, however, I found it had soared to 35,657th, and was ranked 14th, just ahead of John Stuart Mill, in the "government and politics" list, which is headed, mysteriously, by books about the driving test. Moreover, Amazon warns, there are only three copies left. Did Telegraph readers, previously unaware of this masterwork, rush online to buy copies? Or has Sarah Brown secretly put in a bulk order to cheer her husband up?

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

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 23 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan