A-level results improve (again)

By Alex Stevenson

Higher education minister David Willetts has dismissed the perennial ‘dumbing-down’ debate following yet another year of improvements in A-level scores.

Total A to E passes were up from 97.5% to 97.6%, national figures showed. The new A* grade, introduced for the first time this year, constituted 8.1% of A-levels awarded.

The results have triggered a frenzy of clearing applications from students who did not get the grades they needed. As many as 200,000 university applications could prove unsuccessful, after the poor jobs market – and increased reapplications from last year – drove up interest in higher education.

“A-levels are not the be-all and end-all,” a sympathetic Mr Willetts told the BBC.

“There are lots of other ways in which young people can have a successful route into a well-paid job or career.”

He repeated his interest in making graduates provide a “greater contribution” to funding higher education and downplayed those who argue the overall standard of A-levels has declined over time.

“I really do hate that debate,” Mr Willetts added. “Young people work incredibly hard. They have very hard-working teachers and lecturers helping them.

“I think we should stop being down on young people and we should celebrate what they achieve.”

The University and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) is helping students who did not get their required grades through clearing, a process which assisted 48,000 applicants into places last year. Its helpline number is 0871 468 0468.

Schools minister Nick Gibb reinforced the coalition government’s social mobility agenda, advanced by Nick Clegg in a speech yesterday, by saying ministers would push to tackle inequality in the education system.

Mr Gibb said it was “scandalous” that of the 80,000 students in one year eligible for free school meals, just 45 got to Oxbridge.

“The coalition government is committed to all young people, regardless of their background, having the best opportunity to achieve success,” he said.

“That is why we are determined to narrow the historic and entrenched attainment gap between those from the poorest and most wealthy backgrounds.”

But Labour and the unions challenged his claims, saying the government’s spending cuts agenda would damage young people’s prospects.

Shadow business secretary Pat McFadden said social mobility had been hit by the decision to cut 10,000 student places for the coming year.

“Far from promoting social mobility, they have chosen to restrict opportunity for young people receiving their A-level results today,” he said.

“Capping aspiration is no way to increase opportunity or to promote social mobility.”

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber went further, commenting: “Britain remains one of the most unequal and class-bound societies in the developed world. We cannot lift the barriers to social mobility without radical action to make the UK less unequal, yet the policies of deep cuts to public spending are doing the opposite.”