Between 1913 and 1983 the average number of years' schooling doubled, with most of the increase occurring after 1950. The number of exams and the value of results have grown, too, especially in the past 20 years.
In 1977, 31 per cent of Etonians left with at least one grade D or worse; only 7 per cent did so in 1996, and it is virtually none today. In 1977, also, 46 per cent achieved a B or better - nearly all do so now. While grade inflation and higher entry standards partly explain these changes, they also reflect a lunatic new emphasis on exam results as the lodestar of education. The scientific case against this kind of pressure is best illustrated by the work of American psychologist Diane Ruble.
Until about the age of seven, children are very indiscriminate in who they choose to compare themselves with, as happy to pick an adult as a peer. They do not grasp that they have done 'worse' than others. Pre-school and early primary- grade children show impressive resilience in the face of failure - they remain persistent and self-confident.
But age seven marks a big change. They make less positive statements about their own performance, as social comparisons with peers become the means of self-evaluation. This new preoccupation is exploited by teaching methods using techniques that encourage public victories and defeats.
These changes play havoc with the child's wellbeing. Ruble writes that: 'By mid-elementary school, optimism and positive responses to failure largely disappear, with increasing disinterest in school-related activities ... seven- to nine- year-old children are not satisfied unless their performance is best. Because there are only a limited number of "winners" in any competitive system, children may experience a dissatisfaction with themselves...
Comparison,' writes Ruble, 'promotes a sense of relative deprivation and inadequacy.'
Children who do badly develop a poor opinion of themselves because they compare frequently. They show signs of 'learnt helplessness', believing their actions cannot make any difference to educational or other outcomes in their lives. In experiments, when children were given low scores in tests regardless of how well they performed, they began to show signs of depression.
Making children so dependent for their self-esteem on school performance is the perfect preparation for an adulthood where that becomes career performance. Great for employers and workaholic politicians, who want us to be like them, and for advertisers, who use social comparison to make us feel dissatisfied with our possessions, our bodies and our very selves, so we buy a new one. But not so great for our mental health. As the government scratches around for something new to offer us in the next general election, how about 'Education for a happy life'? It's about as likely as Tony Blair admitting that he lied to us about weapons of mass destruction.