Another year of A-level results. Attention has focused on the slight dip in performance levels particularly for As and A*s grades. Yet this is due to a ’comparative outcomes’ approach to assessment, introduced by Michael Gove during his ransacking of state education. Gove considered that examination boards where deliberately manipulating grade boundaries and causing ‘grade inflation’. As a result, while there is some room for flexibility, performance levels are not supposed to deviate from the previous year, even if students might be working harder and preparing better.
Gove’s A-levels have bedded down in other ways – media reports now give little or no attention to the changes in assessment that have meant coursework has virtually disappeared and that a student’s fate is now almost exclusively determined by an end of course written examination, which focuses on traditional academic skills. Gove also decoupled AS level. No longer a halfway stage to a full A-level, entries for AS are only about 20% of what they were two years ago. There’s also been another slight rise in numbers taking STEM subjects (sciences, maths technology and computing) which are contrasted with ‘soft’ subjects like humanities and the arts.
It’s Labour’s proposals for changing the application system which have received most attention. Applying through UCAS after results have been published, as Labour suggests, will certainly reduce numbers scrambling for ‘clearing’, reduce the significance of ‘predicted grades’ and, (it’s hoped) reduce the number of ‘non-conditional’ offers. Young people also spend huge amounts of time making UCAS applications from December to February when the time could be better spent on studying.
But there may be down sides to this. It’s likely young people will now have to return to school or college to make applications in September, putting huge pressure on staff trying to induct new students and start new courses, while universities will also need to delay the start of the academic year significantly. But there are more important implications. Firstly, many young people – this is also the cases with most adults, don’t enter university through the A-level route (there are nearly 250 000 BTEC students for example) so allowances will have to be made for those making non traditional applications. Neither is it the case that being made an unconditional offer always has negative implications for equality. For example there’s a lot to be said for universities making their own entry arrangements with local schools.
But changing the applications process is arguably of much less significant than reforming the examinations and assessment system itself. A popular cause with reformers at the turn of the century, this task now seems to have been parked.