A-level of expediency? (Soft and Hard, Vocational and Academic Part 2)

The huge media coverage of the GCSE grading scandal particularly in English, meant A-level results received less attention than usual this year. Like GCSE there were signs of things to come with a 0.4% decline in the percentage of A/A* awards; even if the total percentage grades A*-E continued to increase – by 0.2 per cent from 97.8 per cent to 98.0 per.

The fall in top grades caught out some of the universities, both Russell and ‘middling’,  that sought to take advantage of a government decision to allow them to expand through the ‘unlimited’ recruitment of students with minimum grades of AAB. It also meant that some institutions towards the top of the pecking order have found that total recruitment is down – Southampton reported a fall of 600 after withdrawing from clearing when the supply of AAB students ‘dried up’ (Guardian 07/09/12).

Data, published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (www.jcq.org.uk/national_results/alevels/)  also shows a further growth  in  percentage entries for  more ‘traditional’ subjects  – Further Maths and Classical Studies experiencing the highest increase of 7.5% –  and a fall in the percentage of candidates taking   newer (disparagingly  labelled ‘softer’ A-levels) withLaw being the biggest loser with an 8.5% fall in entries.

The data also shows a further decline in the Applied   A-level qualification with 10.7 per cent drop in the number of grades awarded for the Double Award – less than 1700 entries for ‘double’ business   – and 7601 for the ‘single’ compared with almost 30 000 for the ‘academic’ version. But business studies as a subject is considered ‘soft’  with numbers  sliding and entries for ‘hard’ economics  creeping up.

The Applied qualification evolving from GNVQ of the 1990s has represented the ‘worst of both worlds’ not being practical enough for those students alienated by textbook based courses, but lacking any real academic credibility. Only Health and Social Care has managed to maintain entry numbers – the 7000 students who sat the ‘single’ qualification being almost exclusively female, while Applied ICT appears as one of the biggest losers.

Meanwhile the Specialist Diplomas, already struggling  despite being a New Labour flag ship (https://radicaled.wordpress.com/pamphlet-a-new-14/) have been hung out to dry by the Coalition – with the number of students completing the A-level equivalent barely reaching 1000. Those students still pursuing the ‘vocational pathway’ – invariably because they lack the GCSE grades to do A-levels, as much as through any  genuine choice – have returned to the old BTEC type courses, though  the Joint Council does not provide any figures.

These developments should not be surprising. Elite universities still run lists of ‘preferred’ subjects, those employers who do still recruit school leavers rarely require them to have vocational qualifications; in fact it’s clear many know little about them. Finally Michael Gove continues to delight the ‘dumbing down’ lobby insisting that some A-levels are easier than others and that for GCSE, schools should be judged on E-bac subjects.

For what was once referred to as a ‘business studies generation’   https://radicaled.wordpress.com/2010/01/29/the-new-business-studies-generation/ – the new cohort of sixth-form students remaining in school in the absence of real employment opportunities and  being offered a less restricted curriculum ; the decision to study one course or another is now an increasingly pragmatic decision, as much as it reflects student intellectual or practical interests.

Not prepared to leave school and college for non-existent apprenticeships, the much less than expected fall in HE applications also indicates, in the absence of anything else,  a generation resigned to accepting the increased university tuition fees.

Gove will welcome the continued increase in entries for traditional subjects, but as with GCSE and the E-bac; he will quickly push ahead and restore traditional forms of assessment , end modules, limit retakes – and of course making sure that more candidates fail!  The only way to ensure real student choice, not to mention what’s left of intellectual integrity at post-16, is to argue for a general diploma qualification for everybody.


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