A-levels. Not as golden as they once were

In Post-16 Educator 104 http://post16educator.org.uk/

Created to replace the Higher School Certificate in 1951 and with only 3% of the cohort sitting them,  A-levels continued to be  elite or ‘gold standard’ qualifications, educationally narrow, with  universities having a major influence over their syllabus content.  Until 1953 A-levels were only graded as pass or fail, at which point a “distinction” grade was introduced.  In 1963, a quota scheme was established, where 10 per cent of candidates would receive an A grade, 15 per cent a B, 10 per cent a C, 15 per cent a D, 20 per cent an E,  a further 20 per cent would receive an O Level pass with the remainder failing altogether. 

As with other parts of the school curriculum reformers were able to secure new  forms of assessment reflecting students ability  (referred to in educational jargon as ‘assessment for learning’ ) rather than how they compared with others.  By the end of the 20th century, the exams had also become ‘modulised’  with an AS level representing the halfway point but also serving as a qualification in its own right. With staying on rates continuing to increase, these changes encouraged more students to enrol.  As a consequence,  A-level became a mass qualification, approaching 800 000 subject entries  with results rising for twenty-five years in a row  and large increases in the number of top grades being awarded. In response,  leading private schools threatened to switch to alternative qualifications like the International Baccalaureate (IB) and the Cambridge Pre U.

 Michael Gove, wanting to restore A-level to its former glory, set out to make syllabuses more ‘robust’,  ended modular courses, re-established  traditional assessment methods and made significant changes to the  content of subjects like English and the humanities, these being hotly  opposed by many practitioners.  But Gove also introduced a ‘comparative outcomes’ formula, where the distribution of grades was not allowed to deviate from those of previous years,  effectively meaning   ‘capping’ being reintroduced and creating a situation where, by implication, improved results in one school or college had to be balanced by a decline elsewhere.  The pandemic has temporarily ended this state of affairs as a result of the suspension of exams and the reliance on teacher/school- based assessment.

While the majority of  students and teachers welcomed this ( more than a few being aghast to hear Tory politicians like Nick Gibb  reversing, if only temporarily, their opinions about teacher assessment), it has not so far generated any lasting positive changes.  On the contrary there have been concerns about ‘grade inflation’ and the undermining of public confidence. (Last summer 87.5% of  entries achieved a grade C or above, compared to 75.5% in 2019. While 38.1% of all entries achieved a grade A or above, compared to 25.2% in 2019).

Because  qualifications like A-level have become  ‘credentials’ –wanted primarily for their ‘exchange’ value; what they can ‘buy’ rather than their intrinsic qualities or  ‘use’ value,  then whatever the form of assessment,  it will always be ‘high stakes’. The Guardian (12/03/21) reported that headteachers fear the increasingly aggressive lobbying by  parents “with pointy elbows and lawyer friends” to boost their children’s  grades and  as a result, widening the attainment gap still further.

So ironically external exams are now considered by many to have strong advantages. The fact that   assessment criteria and marks schemes are publicly available, (including for  the ‘application, analysis and evaluation’ required for higher grades)  encourages students to  accept that success of failure is essentially the result of their own efforts, in other words they perform an important legitimisation function! 

Because schools and sixth form colleges have become ‘exam factories’ A-level teachers, many of whom will have ‘performance related’  pay linked to results of their students  and potentially facing  disciplinary action if they do not follow Ofsted templates and teach in particular ways,  have little choice but to slavishly follow examination specifications,  ‘teaching to test’ and subjecting  students to hours practicing past papers, so that they learn only what is necessary to jump through the various hoops.  Compared to earlier times, when teachers might have looked forward to an afternoon with a small group of motivated sixth formers, classes have got much larger with the amount of marking and preparation reaching new heights.

A-level qualifications are also ‘high stakes’ for students effectively being the only route to a place at an  established university and, as opportunities decline, a more advantageous positions in the labour market.  It goes without saying that teachers  want their charges to do as well as possible!  As a consequence, the situation is very different to  SATs, the meaningless tests in the lower years of schooling, designed primarily to produce data on school performance  and where it was possible to build support amongst practitioners for union boycotts.

This does not mean that we should not continue  to be  creative and innovative in the classroom – many  will continue to search for the space to be able to do this. But an effective  challenge to  A-levels  must be part of a wider programme of curriculum changes   (and for the  reform of university admissions and routes into employment). We must continue to call for new qualification structures designed to increase the status of  vocational learning, but we also need to  critique  the very notion of ‘academic’ education itself. 

Under New Labour’s Curriculum 2000 proposals  for example, the General National Vocational Certificates (GNVQs) were repackaged as Vocational and then Applied A-levels, incorporated the assessment requirements of academic qualifications, but as a consequence, alienated many of the students they were originally designed to attract.   Even then,  Tony Blair, fearing loss of support from middle class parents, passed up the opportunity to integrate vocational and academic learning still further by rejecting the Tomlinson proposals for an overarching certificate, that his own government had commissioned.

2 thoughts on “A-levels. Not as golden as they once were

  1. I was 100% with you until I got to

    “A-level qualifications are also ‘high stakes’ for students effectively being the only route to a place at an established university and, as opportunities decline, a more advantageous positions in the labour market. ”

    “established university”? What on earth is that?

    I think you meant “elite”, or maybe “highly selective”?

    The polytechnics I have worked in were all “established” in the 19th century, one as far off as 1828 as an “Institution for the Diffusion of Knowledge” (a great title, far more descriptive of purpose than the mere “university” it has been for the last 30 years). It was certainly “established” by the time it became a university in 1992, though in practice this shift while welcomed was entirely a reputational development – having achieved independent governance and incorporation from local authority control in 1988, and having virtually the complete right to determine its own curriculum for degree awards under the CNAA partnerships in validation process around the same time.

    By contrast the “new” “plate glass” university I went to in 1975 had only been “established” within living memory just a decade earlier – and was still surrounded by scaffolding in a muddy field in the middle of nowhere! It’s a “Russell Group” University now of course.

    Of course, good grades in BTEC and other vocational qualifications (not to mention Scottish Highers) remain an important route instead of A levels to degrees in many “established universities” – just not to the smaller number of elite or highly selective ones that the newspapers think are soooo important! In fact they are of increasing importance – according to the latest UCAS end of cycle report Dec 2020, the percentage of accepted applicants with “A Level only” qualifications entering first degrees declined continuously every year from 2008 to 2020, from 70% to 59%. A fact which rather detracts from the centrality of the argument in that paragraph.

    A good article … marred by a jarring slip of the keyboard ….

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