A-level. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

This years A-level cohort is untitledthe 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.













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


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.


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.


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.

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.


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)


Download new e-book:  

‘Why  young people can’t get the jobs they want and the education they need’  (see right-hand pages menu)


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


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?