The publication of this year's school exam results has brought a hue and cry about whether educational standards are falling and why boys appear to be doing less well than girls. In fact A level results improved across the board, especially for women candidates.
This week's GCSE results were expected to reveal a similar trend. But, remarkably, more candidates doing better is bad news for right wing commentators.
The right wing say that exams, particularly the A level 'gold standard', show who are the most able. So what happens when more people take these exams and more people get good results?
The most obvious conclusion is that levels of attainment are improving. But acknowledging that blows a hole in some of the central justifications for grotesque class divisions.
It infuriates those who seek to defend a society in which less than 0.5 percent of the population have power and immense wealth, a further 20 percent or so have middle class jobs, and 80 percent are at the bottom of the pile. So they claim that the exams are getting easier, and are failing to discriminate between the intelligent minority and the stupid majority.
This is like saying that the London marathon is getting easier because every year more people enter it and more finish quickly. The marathon is still a little over 26 miles long.
We are also often told that intelligence is inherited, and that clever people supposedly have clever children. And it is often claimed people on big salaries receive the money because they are cleverer than the rest.
So we are told it is natural and fair that the majority of children of working class families can hope for little better than what their parents have. Defenders of capitalism have increasingly over the last two decades tried to bolster this fiction by distorting the results of genetic science.
There have been countless claims that researchers have located a 'gene for intelligence' which explains 'natural differences' between people and accounts for the inequalities in society. Rising A level results over the last 18 years rubbish such claims. No one can argue that there has been significant genetic evolution in such a short period.
Yet more young people are sitting A levels, more are passing (89.1 percent) and more are getting the highest grade (nearly 18 percent). There have been similar improvements in GCSE results. All this has been achieved despite schools being starved of cash, and teachers facing more and more demands on their time.
School exam results are part of a wider pattern. Five times as many 18 year olds go to university than a quarter of a century ago. Even crude intelligence tests show improved results now compared with 50 years ago.
Much more significantly, the number of people who say that reading is one of their main hobbies is higher now than it has ever been. More and more people read demanding novels, popular science books and histories which a generation ago were regarded overwhelmingly as the property of the middle classes.
Despite the obvious abilities of working class people, many are still totally let down by the education system. They feel utterly alienated from the whole system which fails them.
It's not about girls v boys
YOUNG MEN did better than young women at A level for 48 out of the last 49 years. There was little establishment comment.
The idea that women were naturally less intelligent than men was widespread. Right wing commentators dismissed as 'loony lefties' teachers who argued in the 1980s that the underperformance of girls at school was a product of the wider oppression of women in society.
This year women did marginally better than men. Some 18.1 percent of women A level candidates got a top grade compared with 17.5 percent for men. These results have added to talk of a crisis of boys' education. The same reactionary arguments that were once used to justify girls' lower results are now being turned on their head to try to explain why boys' results have not improved as fast as girls'.
Education secretary David Blunkett announced on Monday plans to see whether single sex education would improve boys' exam results. He blamed 'boys' underperformance' on a 'laddish culture'.
He said, 'You end up with mainly white working class or Afro-Caribbean boys who then get even more brutish...they become an absolute waste of space.' But exam results are already improving for boys and girls. It's just that girls' results have improved more dramatically.
The sustained effort of the majority of teachers to challenge sexist assumptions about girls has helped lift their confidence. Young people's aspirations are a major factor influencing their performance at school.
The demands of flexible working, lack of secure employment and Thatcherite government policies are placing new pressures on men. The Tory/New Labour attack on comprehensive education has increased the number of working class boys who are disaffected from school and has hampered teachers' ability to integrate them.
Class still counts
CLASS IS the biggest divide in education. Children of middle class families are three times more likely to get the A levels needed for university than working class children. Middle class children are increasingly taught in schools which are better resourced and use selection to keep out working class or 'difficult' students.
A minority of women, overwhelmingly from middle class families, can aspire to high-powered jobs. But sexism has not gone away. Women with degrees are likely to earn less than 80 percent of their male counterparts. And most young women, alongside most young men, face longer hours and increased stress.
How grades were fiddled in the past
THE BIGGEST change in A levels since they were introduced 49 years ago is in how grades are awarded. In the 1950s and 1960s getting a good mark on an A level exam paper did not mean that you would automatically get a good grade.
Exam boards would decide in advance that they would allow a set percentage of candidates to pass. The authorities would fail a certain proportion no matter what their mark was. Fiddling the grades in this way fitted a system where A levels were a means to filter out the less than one in 20 of the population who were allowed to fill a set number of university places.
Exam boards today do not ration the number of passes and A grades. So rising standards lead to rising grades. Press allegations that A levels were becoming easier led to a major independent inquiry last year.
It found that all the evidence suggests A level exams are just as difficult as they used to be. Those who say standards are falling like to point to the example of maths. But in fact the maths exam requires wider understanding now than it did 100 years ago.
Maths exams in 1900 were full of very involved arithmetic calculations, like dividing one very big number into another. Advanced school mathematics was about preparing a minority of people for jobs such as accountancy before the age of the calculator.
Many A level maths questions in the 1950s asked for knowledge of using log tables and a slide rule, methods of doing sums that are redundant in the computer age. The A level maths course today requires a much greater understanding of the subject than simply the ability to use repetitive techniques accurately but with little thought.