The Independent, 28 September 2011

The thing is that when you sit an exam, you should know that it’s your work which will decide your grade and not the work of the other kids in your school. But this week AQA, the biggest exam board in the country, has revealed plans to rank A-Level students on the basis of which school they attended and how well the other students in that school did in their exams.

On paper, this might seem like a good idea: a brilliant but badly-taught child from a school in which most children struggle to get any qualifications at all won’t be penalised for having lower grades than a child who swanned into Eton and whose only distraction from homework was the constant presence of other CV-boosting opportunities to act in plays, play in the orchestra and orchestrate a governmental take-over some twenty years after leaving school.

In practice, however, it looks rather like a strange form of defeatist communism. No-one would choose to have the value of their work dictated by the value placed on other people’s work. Or indeed by the value placed on the school which your parents chose to send you to, when you were too busy being 10 to contribute to a life-changing decision.

We wouldn’t give people driving licences if they were a bit ropey on the details of slowing down at junctions and not steaming along at 100 mph, but were way better than anyone else coming through that driving school. Why should university be different?

Critics of the plan have already derided it as clumsy social engineering. But social engineering is no bad thing. Far better to engineer the life chances of children born to parents with no qualifications than decree that a life of low-paid menial work is all they deserve because they’re no better than they should be.

What’s really depressing about this whole idea is that no-one seems to think it might be possible to begin that social engineering at a younger age, when children are, say, four or five. And that maybe if all schools were good, or at least not dreadful, no-one would need special consideration for having survived a rotten one.

So perhaps we could refocus our Dadaist public spending priorities (aircraft carriers for non-existent aircraft being only the most overt example) and aim for an education system where all children have a chance to do objectively well at school, rather than relatively well.