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A-levels. Why reform?

By Danny Harrington

The UK education secretary, Michael Gove, is under fire again this week for his proposed reforms to secondary school qualifications. I wonder whether we will see another colossal backtrack shortly. In early February, after months of insisting that the GCSE was to be replaced in England by the English Baccalaureate (ludicrously referred to as the EBacc as if that makes it trendy and therefore good?), it was announced that GCSEs would stay – to the collective relief of teachers, parents, educational professionals and most importantly students. Now the Russell Group has spoken out about plans for A-level reform.

The Department for Education (DfE) is insisting that A-levels revert to an earlier, linear, format. This is the kind of A-level course I took at school in London back in the 1980s. Linear A-levels replaced the Higher School Certificate in 1951 and ran until 2000. Students still choose three or four subjects but all the examining occurs at the end of the two years of learning. Under Curriculum 2000, students have, for the last 12 years, been examined in modular format with A-levels consisting of either 4 or 6 units of study. Usually, the first 2/3 units are examined at the end of the first year’s study and can be cashed in as an AS level (Advanced Subsidiary). Students then take another 2/3 units at the end of the second year. These are referred to as A2 and the correct grades at AS and A2 create a full A-level grade. The reforms would see AS de-linked from the full A-level and retained as a standalone, intermediary (I would say indeterminate) qualification.

The great criticism of the Curriculum 2000 format is that A-levels have become “bite-sized”. By breaking the course into smaller units and examining each across a longer timeframe, students can concentrate their efforts much more than their predecessors could and in theory get better grades. They can also retake units and only count the top grade. There has certainly been grade inflation in the UK but it has been taking place for some 29 years, so blaming modular A-levels for this seems somewhat premature (see exam stats). With the introduction of the A* grade at the top end from 2010, much has been done to deal with this complaint.

This is probably a good point to bring in some context in terms of student numbers. Census figures show approximately 550,000 students in each year of state-funded secondary education to the age of 16, with a further 45,000 in the private sector. Some 220,000 students are enrolled in Year 12 in the state sector with 40,000 in the private, and 200,000 in Year 13 of the state sector with 40,000 again in the private. In 2010, there were 160,000 university applications from UK school students (although this has collapsed to 120,000 in 2012 after fee increases), in other words some two thirds of students educated to age 18 apply to university and the majority of these will have taken A-levels.

My contention then would be that if A-levels are primarily used as a university entrance qualification and not as a workforce entry qualification, then the key concern for grading is simply whether it is useful in helping the university admissions process. The answer to this is unequivocally yes. And this is why the Russell Group universities have raised objections to the DfE reforms. The AS level grades available at the time of application are an excellent indicator of final A-level grades and more importantly of degree performance. Research undertaken by the University of Cambridge shows that AS UMS scores (individual unit scores) correlate extremely well with performance in tripos examinations and much better than GCSE grades or entrance exam performance. Although this is only for successful Cambridge applicants, it does show the value of the AS to that university and I am sure most other universities have similar experiences. If most A-level candidates go on to university, then employers frankly need not worry themselves about A-level achievements as the degree performance will be the more relevant indicator to them. For these reasons, I would be inclined to recommend the modular format remains in place.

There is however, another major criticism of the Curriculum 2000 format which is that with so many more exams and with them spread over two years, students spend 5 out of their 6 A-level terms primarily in an exam prep mode rather than a pure learning mode. There is a feeling here that a huge amount of valuable school time is being wasted on a repetitive process of review and question practice purely for university admission. This represents a loss of time that could be spent on developing the skills that will be required of an undergraduate student. There are increasing complaints of a lack of depth and lack of skills in undergraduate students (although as we have seen they are good at exams!!). Exams are one-dimensional, tending overwhelmingly to test knowledge rather than skills, whereas society really needs people with both. Linear A-levels would free more space in the school curriculum for non-examined learning and are a better comparison to the type of learning and exam regime undertaken at university.

However, with no evidence to suggest Curriculum 2000 has damaged degree performance (grade inflation is here too – twice as many graduated with a first in 2011 compared to 1995 [HESA]) and with admissions officers favouring it, I can see no point to these reforms. What exactly is the secretary trying to achieve? Because right now all he is achieving is to sow uncertainty and to damage the international reputation of the gold standard of the UK school education system.

What I would say to my audience out here in Asia, and to my own students taking IGCSEs and A-levels, is that I do believe the collective wisdom of the education profession in the UK will protect the integrity of British qualifications. We have seen Gove step down over GCSE reform, and we will see A-levels remaining fit for purpose for years to come.

University of Cambridge, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, Higher Education Statistics Agency, UCAS, Department for Education, Office for National Statistics, bstubbs.co.uk.

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