On the day that 300,000 students received their results, Stephen Twigg, Labour’s spokesperson – not usually prone to intervening in debates about education (!) – criticised the Coalition’s decision to make changes to A-levels, making them linear rather than modular with end of course exams, but also committed Labour to restoring AS level as a midway qualification –taken at the end of the first year.
Twigg is on safe ground here though. Rather than back Michael Gove’s reforms as many assumed they would, a number of leading Independent Schools and Russell Universities have signalled their support for maintaining AS – universities also like them because they give a better indication of student progress than having to rely on GCSE results
Introduced as part of Labour’s Curriculum 2000 proposals, AS levels were welcomed by reformers as enabling more breath and choice – allowing students to study additional subjects in the first year, before specialising in three. A modular curriculum (AS levels make up the first two modules) also increased the likelihood, it was claimed, of students mixing academic and vocational subjects. Since the Curriculum 2000 reforms, the number of entries, passes and the number of top grades have increased still further. A-level has become a ‘mass’ qualification with around 800,000 entries.
Though Gove’s new A-levels are not due to begin until 2014, some of his other policy is already starting to kick in. Like last year, this summer’s results have seen a small drop in numbers getting A or A* grades – though there continues to be an increase in the overall pass rate. It’s been suggested that this is due to increased entries for traditional subjects such as maths and the sciences, among the ‘facilitating’ subjects that Russell Universities have told applicants they must do. It might be. It has also been seen as a reason for the narrowing of the gender gap by boys:
Last year however, Gove instructed Ofqual to use a ‘comparative outcomes’ approach, ensuring that grade levels remained similar to the previous year. With the new A-levels being predicted to be harder there may even be a period of grade deflation?
This year will also see frantic activity, as a result of a new government directive, by some universities to recruit as many AAB students as they can.
At the same time ministers talk up the value of ‘apprenticeships’ as an alternative to university, Skills Minister Matthew Hancock crowing that ‘there are more vacancies than ever’ (Independent ‘I’ 15/08/13). Yet with thousands of young people looking for work, applications for apprenticeships outstrip vacancies by 10 to 1. As with applications to prestigious universities, this over-demand is far greater for particular openings that are more likely to lead to work. (www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/record-370000-want-to-join-apprenticeships-8638543.html)
In fact, increased applicants for apprenticeships has not meant a fall in university applicants as young people increasingly apply for both, keeping options open and making decisions as late as possible. And with 1 million young people officially unemployed who can blame them?
One thing is clear. If not a ‘gold standard’, A-levels continue to be the main currency for continuing in education or for entering the labour market –despite the CBI’s John Cridland calling for more emphasis on vocational skills and complaining that schools are now ‘exam factories’ (www.independent.co.uk/student/news/give-skills-qualifications-the-prestige-of-alevel-brand-urges-head-of-cbi-8756482.html)
We need to continue to campaign for a general diploma for everybody, ensuring a range of learning opportunities for all, but in the meantime we should ensure that A-levels are as accessible as possible and do not become a qualification that benefits an elite minority.
Patrick Ainley adds
Relentless propaganda for apprenticeships continues when it is well known that most apprenticeships are not what they are cracked up to be and certainly not what would be considered a ‘proper apprenticeship’ with guaranteed employment on completion in Germany today, or would have been so considered in the UK before our apprenticeship system collapsed in the 1970s.
That is not to say that young people today, facing a jobs market with nearly a million youngsters unemployed and many unskilled jobs demanding qualifications only as a filter for employers, are not often even worse off getting indebted at university, since many courses in crammed full or desperately clearing institutions are also often not what they are cracked up to be and certainly do not guarantee ‘graduate level’ employment – let alone ‘graduate premiums’ of £80,000 more in lifetime earnings that the Independent (16/8) claims ‘Students who do well at university’ earn over those who don’t.
Owen Jones’ advice to young people in the same paper the day before to ‘fight for your future’ is therefore more to the point than more government nonsense about restarting traditional industry and upward social mobility through apprenticeships, on the one hand, and academic education, on the other.