Category: A-levels and the Pre-U

Gove’s exam reforms may still come off the rails

imagesYEARDIVDAfter months of concern, alarm  bells are ringing over accreditation of new A-level syllabuses

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/dec/02/headteachers-criticise-government-chaotic-a-level-reform-delays

Maths and further maths have been put back a year to 2017, while chemistry and English literature syllabuses, due to be taught from 2105  have yet to be given the green-light by Ofqual. With continued doubts  about the new GCSEs also due to begin in 2015 , Michael Gove’s  draconian examinations remain precarious even if Nicky Morgan appears to have been instructed to rubber stamp them.

Telling members that schools and colleges were ‘magnificently rising to the challenge’ Morgan  received a grilling at the Parliamentary Sub-Committee earlier this month on the timing, but also about the design of the new qualifications.

http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/education-committee/news/examinations-follow-up/

While schools and colleges, even private sector headteachers, continue to be concerned about the pressures on schools in implementing another new set of changes, it’s vital that campaigners, practitioners and teacher unions continue to question and campaign against the archaic educational principles behind the reforms, which as Radicaled has continued to argue, are designed to halt rising success rates as labour market opportunities for young people continue to decline.

As the NUT’s Manifesto for Education outlines, we need a wider vision of learning and achievement.

A-level of uncertainty

Another year of university ‘clearing’ swings into gear; but it now takes a very different form compared to when originauntitledlly established to help those who had missed out on their grades having a second opportunity to gain a place elsewhere. Despite tuition fee hikes and Coalition members continuing  to ‘talk up’  failing apprenticeships as an alternative to university,  there’s no evidence that students are shunning Higher Education – disadvantaged young people even less so (www.theguardian.com/education/2014/aug/13/university-tuition-fee-rise-poorer-students).   

With universities now able to recruit an unlimited number of students with ABB grades and with those who achieve higher grades  than are expected able to ‘trade up’ the Financial Times (09/08/14) likened the process to a “football transfer window” as leading universities use everything from free laptops to cash incentives to lure away those who’ve already been accepted elsewhere (www.ft.com/cms/s/0/da265744-1f04-11e4-9d7d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz3A41RHXDo). As the FT indicates, it’s clear that more institutions have been using the Oxbridge style ‘unconditional offer’ to make sure that they are not left empty handed.

This is only half of the story however. If an additional 30,000 places have been funded to allow the recruitment of high performers, this year’s A-level results mean that competition for students will be intensified further and universities are likely to have to admit many who have failed to gain the grades required in their original offer. Despite a 0.6% increase in the new A*grade (as teachers found out what was required to reach it), the percentage of A and B grades are down slightly as is the overall pass rate. A fall in the number of 18 year olds also reduces the size of the pool the universities are fishing in.

Changes to examinations by Michael Gove and supported by new Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, are also affecting the supply of applicants. The ending of the January sitting limits retake opportunities and reductions in coursework are said to favour boys.  Ofqual has been instructed to apply a ‘comparative outcomes’ approach, designed to limit ‘grade inflation’ while the proportion of entries for the more traditional ‘facilitating’ subjects favoured by Russell universities have also increased.

Because of other changes to individual subjects, Ofqual chief Glenys Stacey had already warned that public exam results could be ‘particularly volatile’ this year; but in future the general trend can only  be downwards because more fundamental changes to A-levels kick in from 2015  ( https://radicaled.wordpress.com/2013/11/04/gcse-the-times-they-are-a-changing/ and https://radicaled.wordpress.com/2012/04/12/back-to-the-grammar-school/).

In the post-crash economy however, the increase in both the number of university places available and the number of ‘first choice’ acceptances will not be ‘an important source of social mobility’, as Universities Minister Greg Clark claims. Instead, the number of young people finding themselves ‘overqualified and underemployed’ will continue to grow as Office for National Statistics figures  just released show continued falls in levels of pay  and the number of new  jobs being created in low skill/ low paid sectors vastly outnumbering  better paid/ higher skilled opportunities. Around a million jobs may have been created in the last 12 months but less than 1 in 5 can be classified as ‘professional, scientific or technical’.  (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/lms/labour-market-statistics/august-2014/statistical-bulletin.html)  This can only strengthen arguments that changes to the education system, in the interests of young people rather than market forces, must be part of more general changes to the labour market and economy if they are to be effective.

 

A-level stampede continues as Twigg defends the AS

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.

(www.theguardian.com/education/2013/aug/14/as-levels-revived-labour-twigg

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:

(www.theguardian.com/education/2013/aug/15/a-level-results-shifting-balance-gender)

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.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/9232138/Leading-universities-to-take-more-students.html.

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.

Martin Allen

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.

 

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.

MA

A level of discontent

Michael Gove’s call for increased involvement by elite universities in formulating A-level examination questions attracted both media attention and considerable controversy,  yet it’s  consistent with Gove’s more general intentions for A-level – replacing modular assessment with end of course examinations, ranking some subjects above others in terms of difficulty and reducing the importance of ‘process’ skills in favour of  more emphasis on content. Proposals that first surfaced in the 2010 White Paper The importance of Teaching

Gove maintains his prime concern is about the way current   A-levels do not prepare students for university study and he is able to enlist the support of academics in this – with some apparently complaining that they have had to change the way they taught (!)

The real issue for Gove is more fundamental. The pass rate and more significantly, the number of top grades now being achieved is too high. A-levels, indeed education in general, needs to be returned to its traditional purpose –limiting the success rates of the majority and protecting the interests of the minority. This is particularly appropriate as student aspirations become less and less realisable in a shrinking labour market.

Making the hoops harder to jump through may provide some temporary respite;   but it won’t, as a recent survey by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers shows, stop schools and colleges pushing students to ‘breaking point’ in the struggle to keep up (www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/teachers-admit-fiddling-results-as-pupils-crumble-under-pressure-of-exams-7606809.html)

 

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A-level: From ‘academic and vocational’, to ‘soft and hard’.

 

Martin Allen                                                                                                                                                                                                              

NUT 14-19  discussion paper 

(For an update on A-level developments see https://radicaled.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/a-level-of-expediency/)

Comprehensive schools have fought hard to build up their sixth-forms. The early comprehensive reformers were critical of A-level- an examination designed for a small minority of post-war school students. Yet  as Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty recognised Thirty-years on comprehensive schools ‘accommodated to elitism’ – understanding that their adversaries would judge them on whether they were able to place their more academically talented students in universities.  

As staying on rates increased, governments introduced a succession of ‘vocational alternatives’ primarily for young people in non-selective sixth forms and in FE colleges, but these courses failed to establish themselves.  Student (and parent) scepticism about whether a GNVQ really was worth the same as 2 A-levels,  was confirmed by the fact that Russell universities were unlikely to admit anyone with GNVQ as their main qualification and by the fact that selective or Independent schools did not offer it.

As GCSE pass rates continue to rise, any sixth former who can, is likely to enrol on an A-level course. As a result, new courses and syllabuses have emerged and comprehensives have extended their A-level provision.  Today, 75% of 850,000 plus A-level entries are from non – selective schools and even though Independent schools still account for 50% of the A-grades, comprehensives have closed  the gap for grade Bs and Cs.

Whenever the educational playfield appears to be levelling however, something always seems to cave in. Mindful of the fact that A-level is now a mass qualification some Independents and selective schools have ditched it completely and concentrated on the International Baccalaureate (IB) or have adopted the new Cambridge Pre-U.  Those who retain A-level as their main provision now hope that they will be able to use the new A* grade to maintain their advantage.

It’s also clear however that divisions between ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ A-level subjects are now becoming as important as the old divisions between ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’. The Headmaster of Harrow, was recently quoted (Guardian 23/01/10)  accusing state schools of ‘conning’ students from poor back grounds by handing out ‘worthless’ qualifications and  telling them that ‘high grades in soft subjects’ and ‘going to any old university’ would help  them succeed in life. The Telegraph (18/11/08) had previously reported Michael Gove’s   comments that ‘there had been a flight from quality’ into soft A-levels.  Aspiring students in comprehensive sixth forms are without doubt, increasingly aware of these divisions and choose their A2 options accordingly.

In fact, Cambridge University and the LSE both publish ‘B’ lists of subjects not considered appropriate.

Cambridge’s   ‘less than ideal’

Accounting, Art and design, Business studies, Communication studies, Dance, Design and technology, Drama and theatre studies, Film studies, Health and social care, Home economics, Information and Communication Technology, Leisure studies, Media studies, Music technology ,Performance studies, Performing arts, Photography, Physical education, Sports studies, Travel and tourism

LSE

Accounting , Art and Design, Business Studies, Communication Studies , Design and Technology, Drama/Theatre Studies, Home Economics, Information and Communication Technology,  Law, Media Studies, Music Technology Sports Studies , Travel and Tourism

Cambridge advises pupils not to take more than one of a list of 20 A-level subjects, including art and design, dance, film studies and media studies, as part of the three A-levels normally needed to obtain a place. What’s also interesting in these lists is that the differences between ‘applied’ (previously ‘vocational’) and academic versions of subjects like ‘business studies’ seem to have disappeared. Business studies as a whole is now a ‘bum’ subject – one that the most elite schools will seek to avoid. A quick survey gives the following snapshot:

                                              Business Studies in the sixth form

 Eton College          no

 Harrow School    yes                              

 Charterhouse       Business and Management as Pre-U subject

 Cheltenham Ladies College         no     

 St Pauls (independent day)         no

 Manchester Grammar   (independent day)      “we do not offer other A-level courses                                                                                                                                                       in particular psychology…business studies”

 TiffIn  Girls School    (state selective)        no

 London Oratory School   (state voluntary aided)        yes

 Watford Grammar School for Boys (state selective)   no

(Source   Martin Allen ‘The New Business Studies Generation’ SRHE paper / Greenwich University 27/01/10)

The centre-right think-tank Policy Exchange provides extensive data on how leading universities view ‘soft’ subjects. Examples are as follows:

• At Oxford, more students were accepted in 2007-08 with Further Mathematics A-level (711) than Accounting, Art & Design, Business Studies, Communication Studies, Design & Technology, Drama/Theatre Studies, Film Studies, Home Economics, ICT, Law, Media Studies, Music Technology, Psychology, Sociology, Sports Studies/Physical Education and Travel & Tourism A-level combined (overall 494 of these subjects wereaccepted).

Biology, Chemistry, Further Mathematics, Mathematics and Physics comprised close to half of all accepted A-levels  for Bristol (49.8%) and UCL (46.9%).  More than three times as many Economics A-levels (640) were accepted at Nottingham University than Sociology (193) or Drama/Theatre Studies (165). These two subjects are both more popular than Economics at A-level in schools.  More than four times as many A-levels were accepted in French at Warwick University (331) as in Law (82). Law is more popular than French at A-level in schools. More than four times as many A-levels were accepted in Physics at Manchester University (1875) than in Media and Film Studies combined (403).

(Source – The hard truth about ‘soft’ subjects’ | Anna Fazackerley and Julian Chant | www.policyexchange.org.uk)

As significantly, as with the business studies survey above, the data links certain types of subjects with certain types of schools. For example 75% of all A-level examinations are taken in non-selective schools, but 96% of Law and 93% of media studies entries are in these schools. Psychology is now the third most popular subject, but only 6% of entries are in Independent schools

Discussion points

  • Do we take the advice of Gove and Lenon and insist comprehensive schools get their top students to make better choices? (On the grounds that if we don’t do this, inequalities between schools can only widen and that we want to do the best for all our students)
  • Do we accept ‘dumbing down’ claims that some subjects are actually ‘easier’?
  • Do we continue to defend the larger coursework components of some ‘soft’ subjects?
  •  How do we challenge the elitist conceptions of knowledge held by Russell/research intensive universities?

The Pre-U Won’t Do

 fickfrontcov1 

                                                              Martin Allen  *

 

                                                                                                                     

 

Proponents of Tomlinson style reform of 14-19 education may have been encouraged by last year’s   announcement of new diploma lines in more traditionally academic subjects – humanities, science and languages- alongside the original 11 diplomas in more directly vocational areas[1], yet there is still no evidence of the government planning to replace A-levels or ‘diplomarise’ them into an overarching certificate in the way that Tomlinson reformers hope. On the contrary, it has put back its proposed qualifications review till 2013, hoping the diplomas become bedded in alongside A-levels.

 

 

A-level; a post-war gold standard

 

Emerging out of the post-war construction of secondary education, the GCE A-level replaced the matriculation certificate. It was always assumed that the new qualification would be aimed at about 5% of the cohort – not the current 30%+ – mostly sons and daughters of the post-war middle class or some of the ‘socially mobile’ working class children who had entered grammar school. Regarded as an educational ‘gold standard’ but considered both elitist and too narrow by reformers it not only survived, but as Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty observed, rather ironically, also thrived in the new comprehensive schools of the post-war period. [2]

As a result, in recent years government has failed to divert significant numbers of young people who now remain in full-time education beyond 16 into ‘vocational alternatives’ like BTECs. GNVQs and Applied A-levels A-level entries have continued to grow; now toping well over 800,000 annually.  Even though a long list of new subjects has emerged, ‘traditional’  ones  like English, mathematics and  biology continue to head the entries league, with only psychology breaking into the top 5 (TES 15/08/08). Rather than embracing new courses of study, students remain canny about preferences of elite universities for particular A-level subjects rather than others (Guardian 15/08/08).

 

Exclusivity v Accessibility

Despite the continued influence of ‘tradition’ however, there have been considerable changes to the A-level diet. The ‘Curriculum 2000 ‘ reforms though by no means as radical as New Labour’s original proposals for the reform of post-16, have been extremely significant.  Curriculum 2000 established a modularised two part AS-A2. It also encouraged a new emphasis on ‘skills’ rather than simply concentrating on content. The new structure also meant that students could retake modules, particularly at AS level so as to enhance their final grades – which they do in large numbers.

With the annual publication of A-level results invariably showing both a rise in pass rates and a rise in the number of candidates obtaining an ‘A’ grade, A-levels continue to be steeped in controversy  facing allegations of ‘dumbing down’ and grade inflation – Oxford University reportedly turned away 5000 students with three straight A grades in 2007. (Guardian 14/08). In 2004 allegations that examination boards were tampering with grade boundaries as a result of pressure from government led to the resignation of QCA’s Chief Executive and the creation of Tomlinson’s working group on 14-19 reform.

 

The emergence of the Cambridge Pre-U                                    

It is in this context that we should consider the emergence of the Cambridge Pre-U. As the first gateway of diplomas get off to a shaky start across a range of comprehensive schools and further education colleges, September 2008 saw the launch of first Pre-U’s in 50 schools mostly in the Independent sector including Eton and Winchester (Guardian 11/11/08). In contrast to the modular AS-A2 system used at A-level, the Pre-U returns to the more traditional linear approach. With assessment of AS-A2 now increasingly ‘task based’,  Pre-U’s creators want to restore the importance of essay writing and the end of course final examination. To gain the full Pre-U, students take three Principal subjects, but also complete a research project and a ‘Global Perspectives’ portfolio. Cambridge claim it will be ‘exciting to teach’ and develop ‘an independent and self-directed style and ensure academic integrity.

According to its advocates, Pre-U will offer pupils more stimulation and a system of assessment that rewards creativity and lateral thinking. A-levels, they complain, only teach students to ‘think inside a very small box’ and discriminate against ‘highly imaginative students’, whose answers may even be marked down because they are considered too sophisticated. According to Tony Little, Headmaster of Eton, (Times. 20/11/2006) ‘Pre-U will offer pupils more stimulation and a system of testing that rewards creativity and lateral thinking. A-levels, he complains, only teach students to ‘think inside a very small box’ and discriminate against ‘highly imaginative students’, whose answers were often marked down because they are considered too sophisticated. ‘We want the best courses that challenge our students’. In the same article Graham Able, Head of Dulwich College, suggests the Pre-U represents   a return to the original idea of A-level as a qualification for university entry.   

 

 

Pedagogy or position? 

 

Many secondary and sixth-form college teachers may have some sympathy with the accusations that A-levels have been ‘dumbed down’, that there is too much assessment and that it is unnecessary to have AS and A2 divisions, but it isn’t surprising if these arguments may appear attractive at a time when school teachers, are bombarded with targets and lamenting the loss of much of their professional autonomy, over how they teach.

 

There are other reasons however for Pre-U’s emergence. Being primarily designed for high-performing students, many will consider the new qualification unashamedly elitist and – with A-level pass rates reaching 97% and with 1 in 4 candidates now receiving an A grade – that its main purpose is to ensure the leading and the most expensive schools can re-establish their ‘positional’   advantage.

 

Even if elite/private schools are responsible for a large proportion of the increases in grade A, they can no longer guarantee that their students will automatically be at the front of the queue for entry to top universities. As the Guardian (20/1/09) reported, comprehensive are closing the gap at B-D, suggesting that it is only a matter of time before they also increase their share of top grades[3]. Elite schools clearly don’t consider they can rely on the new A*grade due to become available from 2010.

 

Pre-U principal subjects will have 9 different grades. At the top, there will be D1 (distinction 1) D2 and D3. At least one school, Charterhouse (fees £26 000 per annum), has decided to offer the Pre-U in some individual subjects rather than as a diploma, thus creating a brand of ‘super A-levels’ .This will, as the Daily Telegraph (23/01/08) reassured its readers, mean that independent schools are ‘likely to tighten their grip on leading universities’.

 

Of course, as Cambridge make clear, there is nothing to stop state schools introducing the Pre-U particularly in individual subject areas where they may have expertise and particularly now that OCQ have given it official backing. 15 of  the schools teaching the new qualification from last September may be officially part of the state sector, but all but two are grammar schools and  one of the comprehensives in the initial cohort could be described as ‘unusual.’[4] CIE claims that 30 comprehensives will be part of the 2009 cohort (Guardian 11/11/08) however many comprehensive schools, struggle to provide a variety of A-level and vocational options and simply won’t have the resources to offer parallel courses in individual subjects.

 

 

A new upper track?

 

There have always been alternatives to A-level. For example the International Baccalaureate remains an established qualification, popular in International Schools but also attracting a small following in the state sector. Until this year at least,  government, as part of its drive to promote ‘diversity’ was committed to ensuring that the IB would be available in at least one school or college in every LEA area-earmarking £2.5 million. Now, with the emergence of the Pre-U, the further expansion of the IB is less certain. As well as being a more direct ‘national’ alternative to A-level, which according to Charterhouse has now ‘had its day’[5]; the Pre-U is also much easier to deliver than the ‘expensive’ IB (Bunnell, 2008)[6].

 

The Pre-U seeks to occupy the prime position in an increasingly complex landscape of post-16 certification. In an era of mass participation in HE, new types of correspondence may be evolving.  Pre-U aims to establish itself as a flagship qualification for entrance to ‘Ivy League’ Russell universities, leaving A-levels as a ‘middle’ qualification’ (maybe for ’middle’ universities?) and vocational /applied qualifications, including the new specialist diplomas for the ‘clearing’ (million +) universities.

 

 

 

What next?

 

 

A-levels may be very different to what they used to be, they are certainly more accessible, but there    is no definitive research evidence that they are necessarily getting easier. On the other hand one thing is certain; as performance levels rise young people have to work harder simply to stand still and the current generation of sixth formers are les or more able, they are certainly the most prepared and the  most coached in exam techniques.

 

 Rather than becoming embroiled in circular arguments about the merits of certain types of learning we need a comprehensive approach to the post-16 curriculum which includes them all. This will not ‘dumb down’ standards, but if organised properly and accompanied by serious measures to reverse the government’s ‘choice and diversity’ agenda, could at least start to  ‘level up’ different types of learning and make them more challenging and more exciting. In this respect, the multi-level general diploma blueprint, developed by the National Union of Teachers[7], continues to point the way.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 *  A shorter version of this appeared in The Teacher Secondary and Sixth Form Supplement Sept 2008

 

Notes

[1] See the DCSF’s   2008 Promoting achievement, raising success: a strategy for 14-19 qualifications   which confirmed press announcements earlier in the year. 

[2] ‘Never had  an  examination so widely criticised been so long retained…Elite criticism of the comprehensive  idea forced comprehensive schools to collude with the system because A-levels were  one way in which they could establish their own credibility.’ Caroline Benn and Clyde Chitty (1996) Thirty Years On; Is Comprehensive Education Alive and Well or Struggling to Survive?   Fulton  ( p349,)

[3] Dumbing down disguise- Tom Clark and Polly Curtis accuse the exam boards of   withholding these figures to refute claims that the exams are getting easier.

 

[4] See Fran Adam’s references to Coloma Girls Convent School ‘Anyone for Stretching?’  Guardian Nov 11, 2008. The other ‘comprehensive’ is Wimbledon College a  Catholic/Jesuit boys school. 

 

[5] Daily Telegraph 24/01/09

 

[6] For a comprehensive review of the growth and contradictions behind the IB  see

Bunnell, T (2008)   The International Baccalaureate in England and Wales: the alternative paths for the future.  Curriculum Journal Vol 19. No 3 Sept 2008.

 

[7] National Union of Teachers (2005) Bringing down the barriers to 14-19 education.