Still trying to answer the A-level question

As expected, the 2010 A-level results show  increases in entries and pass rates, but also a further drift towards traditional or ‘hard’ subjects, like maths and economics,  at the expense of  those such as  law and  business Studies, now regularly denounced as ‘soft’ or ‘inappropriate’ for  entry to top universities.   Statistics also show a sharp fall in numbers taking the Applied A-levels which replaced the GNVQs, but which never really enjoyed the status as ‘proper’ A-levels. In other words students are increasingly choosing subjects on the basis of their currency, thinking about what they are ‘worth;’ rather than what they might like studying most. Learning what they have to, rather than what they think they might need to.

The 2010 results also show that even if 1 in 12 students has managed to obtain the new A*  these went to 17% of candidates in maths and almost 9% in economics, compared with 5.5% in law and less than 4% in business.  More significant is the disproportionate number of A*s earned by students in different institutions. Independent schools averaged almost 18%, grammar schools 5.5% and comprehensives under 5% – resulting in Schools Minister Nick Gibb warning that the system   was “one of the most divided in the world.” (Independent 20/08/10)  He should know!  

This unequal distribution of A*s may  slow down the number of  elite schools ditching A-level in favour of the Cambridge Pre-U  or the International Baccalaureate, but it won’t stop the further fragmentation of the education system as these schools increasingly seek to differentiate themselves and parents who can afford to,  continuing to pay the price.

With demand for university places far outstripping the supply, one might assume that disgruntled A-level students   might join the thousands of young people who have already fallen out of academic learning and signed up for ‘vocational alternatives’ or apprenticeships. But the fact that these are even less likely to lead to a job means that for the time being, cramming for A-levels and then queuing for university continues to be seen as the only option by most. Though suffering a serious credibility crunch, the A-level bubble has yet to burst, the question remains. What next?



  1. Andy Crosby

    From my point of view, as a Physics teacher, (I apologise for my bias in advance!) it can only be a good thing that certain subjects are having their apparant value diminished – I think this reflects fairly on their actual value for post A Level education.

    If someone wants to go on to do something at univesity then they can’t expect to go to the best universities without taking the most appropriate experience before hand, just as experience working as a professional skateboarder wouldn’t be conducive to an executive role in FTSE100 company. It may be more fun, and I’m sure plenty of people would love the skateboarding job, but that doesn’t mean that being good at it should move you to the top of the list for other areas, or even the top of the list for mechanical engineering, mechanics or physics jobs, even though these are what make skateboarding work.

    A couple of examples: Applicants for Phsychology at a lot of universities are not told they need to do a Psychology A Level. The Psychology A Level is so accessable and the comparitive level so basic that it doesn’t tell the university much about you as a degree level Psychology student, or the level of potential you have. The entire A Level of Psychology fits within less than half a year at uni, content wise, so that’s not really an issue, and with the variety of approaches taken to the A Level covering this material is essential for the university anyway. Something like English shows an analytical approach at a higher level than Psychology, Biology a physical comprehension at a higher level, even maths shows purely logical reasoning at a higher level. Is it any wonder then that the better universities would rather snap up these skill sets? The candidate has demonstrated higher potential and more appropriate skills for succeeding at a higher level.

    Medicine is another good example. Biology is not as favoured as Maths, Physics and Chemistry at a lot of universities. Why? It doesn’t take very long to catch up the basic anatomy and knowledge base that is actually relevant to medicine from the Biology A Level. However, learning the analytical approached and the conceptual difficulties of the other three subjects requires a much higher calibre of thinking and approach – and demonstrates the sort of methodical analysis that is essential for a medical practitioner.

    I think a lot of the inflated value comes from the teachers of the subjects themselves “talking their subject up” and the lack of foresight given to the typical student in a secondary school. A lot of students aren’t told which subjects are going to be most widely applicable, or which subjects will lead to the more difficult qualifications post A level. Even with the current mess in the job market for young people, there still isn’t much of an appreciation for which subjects lead to courses that will actually give you a job afterwards.

    All that said, I still think there is value in education for fun and interest rather than for outcome. A key feature of any developed and civilised society is culture, and true cultural development only stems from personal passion and interest. In a horrible reflection of modern interpretation of culture, if it wasn’t for a lot of passionate media studies students then television would be nowhere near where it is now. However, if every single person in television in the UK was fired today there still wouldn’t be enough jobs for all the media graduates from this year.

    Another thing that struck me is that the access to educational whim is funded by the economy. The country can only afford this through creating enough money. If we neglect the subjects most beneficial to our economy then the access of the many to a higher level of learning comes under threat. It is through prosperity in these fields that we have the option now to be able to do such things.

    Study through purely interest has its place, it just shouldn’t be assumed that all courses will be treated equally, when they are in fact not equal. And if we want to make sure that the majority of future generations get the same options we have then we better make sure the kids start to realise this.

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