This years A-level cohort is the first to take the new style qualifications – part of wider changes introduced by Michael Gove to make exams ‘fit for purpose’. Gove ended the AS level as a half way point to a full award and set strict limits on the amount of coursework – most subjects would be assessed by a final exam. Many educationalists considered this a step back, an attempt to re- establish the A-level as a ‘gold standard’ qualification for a smaller number of students. Many teachers complained about the way in which the reforms had been rushed through, with a lack of new text books, that options were being reduced. Many students have complained about the stress of being ‘guinea pigs’, unsure about what they should be revising and the absence of any ‘past papers’.
These fears have been unfounded. There’s been a very slight fall in the number of students that have achieved an A or A* for the new syllabuses but the overall pass rates have barely changed. Confounding critics, but under pressure to ‘perform’, schools have continued to ‘teach to test’ learning how to get their students to jump through new hoops; but the holding up of grades is also because Gove instructed qualifications watchdog Ofqual to adopt a ‘comparative outcomes’ approach based on the previous year’s performance and on student predictions. According to Gove, this would prevent ‘grade inflation’ – ending a pattern where pass rates for all levels had continued to increase. By implication it also meant that achievement levels would not fall if new ‘more demanding’ examinations were introduced – though this would not rule out changes in the relative performance of individual schools – improvements in one school’s results can only be at the expense of a fall in another’s.
As a result, the A-level continues to march on. With over 750 000 entries it’s still the main qualification for university. It’s true that about 30% of those entering HE have a vocational qualification, but to enter even a ‘middle’ ranking university a student would need to combine this with A-level grades. Entries for Applied A-levels, which evolved from the old GNVQs have slumped to a few thousand, while the planned T-levels remain on the back burner.
It’s also clear, despite the fees, the debt and attempts to talk up alternative routes, that school leavers continue to head to university in huge numbers – even before this year’s ‘clearing’, during which students are now able to ‘trade up’ if their exam results are better than expected, there has been no significant decrease in the proportion of school leavers accepting university places – the reported 2% total decline being the result in falls in adult and part-time applicants. As there are still only a handful of higher level apprenticeships they don’t represent an alternative and there is no real evidence of employers increasing the number of school leavers they recruit.