A-levels: not as golden as they used to be


Martin Allen  

                                                       Socialist Education Journal No2


August brings the annual hue and cry about A-levels being too easy, with this year proving to be no exception. The London Evening Standard front paged with ‘A-grades for one in four A-levels’ while The Guardian provided a picture of  a 12 year old computer games fan, celebrating his A grade in AS maths.


 Socialists and radicals used to attack A-levels for being too elitist. Created to replace the Higher School Certificate in 1951 only 3% of the cohort sat them and even then, because of the ‘capping’ system  30% would fail.  As well as being elitist, A-levels were also educationally narrow, with  universities having a major influence over their content. Rather than developing particular skills or capacities, A-levels were justified in terms of ‘training for the mind’.


 Since their inception, there have been changes. From the 1980s coursework  became an increasingly significant  part of  assessment and  new subject areas like  media studies, sociology and psychology have been added. As a result of  the Curriculum 2000  reforms A levels  have also been broken down into AS and A2 each comprising 3 modules. However, the extent of these changes, though significant, should not be overestimated.  In many respects A-levels have remained the same. They have continued to dominate the post-16 curriculum at the expense of a succession of vocational qualifications which  have experienced ‘academic drift’ as a result of  attempting to emulate them.  Advanced GNVQs have even been relaunched as vocational A-levels (VCEs).


 Continuing to denounce A-levels as elitist is less of  a plausible argument these days with 800 000 entries and thousands of straight ‘A’s’ turned away by Oxbridge.  On the contrary, for those for whom A-level used to represent a treasured and trusted ‘gold standard’, the problem now is that it’s not elitist enough.  But are standards falling in the way that the right-wing press, Chris Woodhead and the Institute of Directors think they are? 


Wrong on most other things, Government ministers are correct to counter these claims. The increases reflect the fact that more youngsters are studying harder, while according to QCA’s own research there is no real evidence that standards at either GCSE or A-levels have fallen over time. It’s true that there has been an increase in the number of A-level courses, which has resulted in Cambridge University producing a  proscribed list of ‘easy’ subjects and this includes three subjects in the ten most popular, General Studies, Art and Design and Media/Film/TV Studies,  but rather than ‘dumbing down’ it represents an ‘A-levelling up’ process. 


 Of course, New Labour will cite this as further proof that their education reforms are paying dividend. Yet, if teachers can take much of the credit for these increases in performance, then for young people, safely negotiating the qualifications merry-go-round has become even more essential. Changes in employment prospects and the disappearance of traditional openings for school leavers has led to a situation where everyone expects to have to climb further up the qualifications stairway.



 However there’s is no clear evidence that skill requirements in the majority of jobs in the 21st century have been increasing at anywhere near the same rate as educational performance levels, or that university courses are becoming more demanding. When CBI surveys tell us that 80% of new jobs are going to require the equivalent of 5 GCSE C-grades, they are probably reflecting what employers now expect most of their applicants to have, rather than what they might actually need to do it. In fact some of the more detailed surveys of what employers really want from young people continue to provide conflicting or contradictory responses. But these increases in expectations mean that for youngsters, climbing the stairway is also like climbing a downwards escalator – you move faster and faster but end up standing still. 


 Calls for A-levels to be replaced by a baccalaureate now come from all sides of the standards debate, but is this answer?  A baccalaureate, or a Tomlinson style general diploma might give students a broader educational experience, so in one sense, the answer will always be yes. But for elite universities primarily interested in identifying the ‘best of the best’, a greater range of grades for those at the top – something Tomlinson also proposed – would probably not provide a long term solution. Without a fall in the intensity of demand for A’s (or even proposed new A*’s), grade inflation like real inflation can only be mitigated, not abolished. 


 As there is no current evidence that government enthusiasm for retaining current A-levels will abate, it has now been suggested that there should be a return to the capping system abolished in 1987, where only a certain number of  candidates can be awarded the very top grades. For those who support the ideals of comprehensive education, not only would this be a retrograde step, but it would also reduce the legitimacy of the examination system in the eyes of those students who both go to comprehensives and gain top grades.


But even capping might not be enough for elite schools who, faced with rising levels of exam performance across the educational spectrum, cannot guarantee that their own students would make the quota. For example in the 2002 A-level results debacle, it was private schools, finding that some of their students had not got the grades they had been predicted, that were amongst the first to accuse awarding bodies of manipulating grade boundaries.


 Leading universities might follow Cambridge and decree that only the more traditional A-levels are acceptable. But it’s more likely that elite schools will secure their own arrangements for admitting students to Oxbridge or other Russell universities.  They’ll increasingly look to alternative qualifications like International GCSEs or the equally elitist IB (International Baccalaureate) given Tony Blair’s  blessing as an appropriate alternative to A-levels for a minority of schools/sixth-form colleges (bbc.co.uk 30/11/06). Plans are now being made to launch a Cambridge ‘Pre-U diploma’. Backed by private schools and Russell universities the Pre U may be available as soon as September 2007. Ostensibly being introduced for educational reasons and, to quote the Headmaster of Rugby to ‘stretch those at the top end’ (Guardian 12/07/06) because the Pre U, like the International GCSE, is not yet recognised by QCA, it won’t be available to maintained schools.


 However, it’s also likely that top universities will eventually be able to break away from the rest of the HE sector and form an American style Ivy League, able to charge their own levels of fees on condition that they continue to offer a proportion of  their places as scholarships for those not able to pay.  If they do, then reforming A-levels could become a side issue.




























Socialist  Education  Journal  No.2  Oct  06
















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