Are A-levels the gold standard or the old standard?

Twice saved from the chop by the powers that be and scheduled for yet another makeover, A-levels are used by almost everyone yet please next to no one. William Stewart investigates a very chequered history
8th August 2014, 1:00am


Are A-levels the gold standard or the old standard?

The A-level is the great survivor of school exams.

Now in its 64th year, an age unheard of for most qualifications, the old stager is about to undergo another regeneration designed to keep it in pole position for many more years.

It looks like an unrivalled success story. O-levels, GNVQs, CSEs have all fallen by the wayside but the General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level - to use its full name - marches on, seemingly untouchable.

Long proclaimed the “gold standard” of English education, the A-level has conquered many overseas territories and seen off all threats at home, from the sophisticated continental International Baccalaureate to the puny Diploma, abolished last year.

But those long years at the top, seamlessly shifting from the end of Empire through to the internet age, have not been easy. Beneath the successful surface lies a troubled tale of confused identity. From birth, the A-level has been pulled between at least two competing demands. Any plaudits have been accompanied by attacks and, 12 years ago, the qualification suffered a shattering breakdown.

Even today, as the A-level looks forward to a thriving future after its latest batch of reconstructive surgery, a darker truth casts a shadow over this privileged but unhappy baby boomer. Its elite, academic parents, the universities, who nurtured the A-level in its vulnerable early years, today seem reluctant to have much involvement with their now bloated offspring. More fundamentally, the qualification’s longest-standing serious handicap - its lack of breadth - has still not been addressed.

Born in the Blitz

To understand how we got here we have to go back to another millennium, to a time when history’s most terrible conflict was raging. In the midst of the Second World War, Britain was at its lowest ebb. Nevertheless, Churchill’s coalition government was already planning for a new education system. And it was then, in October 1941, that the seeds of the A-level were first sown. R A Butler, president of the Board of Education (the equivalent of today’s education secretary), appointed a committee headed by Sir Cyril Norwood - a former headteacher of Bristol Grammar, Marlborough and Harrow - to consider the future of exams in secondary schools. The Norwood report was submitted in June 1943 and recommended the abolition of the A-level’s predecessor, the Higher School Certificate Examination (HSC).

the blitz, world war two, London

The HSC - taken by 18-year-olds and introduced in 1918, alongside the School Certificate sat by 16-year-olds - had performed several parallel functions. It was a gauge of work done during the sixth form, a university entrance test and had become an increasingly important way of selecting pupils’ state scholarships to university.

The Norwood report emphasised the elite nature of the HSC, “derived from the traditions of the older Grammar Schools, the Public Schools and Universities”. It meant that the “number of candidates would be small” and that the “link with the university, and so with university examinations, would be close”.

This was a time before mass public exams existed. The HSC and the School Certificate were the country’s first national qualifications but they were not widely taken. Compulsory schooling finished at 14, so the majority never sat the School Certificate. They were even less likely to stay on for the HSC.

The result, according to the University of Buckingham’s Professor J R Shackleton, was that “most inter-war pupils left school without any certification of their abilities and achievements”.

Time for a shake-up

So the stage was set for the entry of the A-level: an enfant terrible ready to shake up England’s elitist school system and introduce national exams for everyone in a new post-war era of opportunity and enlightenment.

Well, it might have been. But that wasn’t what happened. And it wasn’t really what the Norwood committee had in mind either - it wanted fewer exams, not more. In an example of how some things never change, the 1943 report warned that external testing had been “having a cramping effect upon the minds of teachers and pupils”.

“A substantial volume of evidence comes from teachers who regret the curtailment of their own freedom and regret the false values suggested to the pupil by the external examination,” the report said. It argued that “the time has come when the teaching profession should have the chance to shoulder its own responsibilities and thereby gain its freedom and enhance its prestige”.

It was bold stuff. However, the committee’s recommendations for a tripartite system of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools were to prove far more influential than its call for a move to teacher assessment.

What finally emerged after the war, in 1947, was much less radical. The government opted to introduce the General Certificate of Education (GCE) with its ordinary, advanced and scholarship levels, first sat in 1951. It was a new name but, in many ways, a continuation of what had gone before. Like the HSC, the A-level was run by university exam boards. It was also every bit as elitist as its predecessor.

Education historian Professor Gary McCulloch describes it as an “academic system of progression for a small, elite group, mainly from grammar schools, who would go on to a fairly small group of universities”.

Today, some even tell of a theory that the qualification was part of a deliberate attempt by top universities to stem the flow of ex-servicemen trying to gain entry to their hallowed halls. There is no obvious evidence to substantiate this story. But there is also no doubt that the A-level was designed for a tiny segment of the population. The GCE as a whole was never intended for the 75 per cent of pupils who attended secondary modern schools, and the A-level was taken by an even smaller subgroup of the remaining 25 per cent.

Born into the era of austerity and rationing, the A-level was cautious and conservative, not a revolutionary force for change. From the outset, it was also very mixed up. Like the HSC, it was designed and run by the universities as a selective entry test. But it also had to act as a record of achievement for the many sixth-formers who would not go anywhere near a university. The two roles did not necessarily coincide.

The A-level did break some new ground by bringing greater depth and more choice about what to study. But this had the side effect of narrowing the curriculum. Shackleton contrasts the “range of subjects” covered under a single Higher School Certificate, which “resembled the Continental baccalaureate model”, with the stand-alone, single-subject A-levels.

McCulloch, from the University of London’s Institute of Education, says concerns about this narrowness were raised in the 1950s. But the universities were happy and the numbers who took the A-level but did not go on to higher education were small enough to be trumped by the needs of those who did.

So the A-level’s dual roles and lack of breadth were left to fester, only to erupt as serious problems many years down the line. The biggest change in the qualification’s early years concerned grading. The exams were graded only “pass” or “fail” when they began, with a further mark of “distinction” introduced in 1953.

A decade later, an A-E grade system was introduced. It was awarded according to a norm-referencing system that fitted with the A-level’s selective origins and ensured that the proportion of candidates receiving each grade remained the same every year.

a-levels, tony blair, exams, michael gove, GCSEs

It did not matter how well or poorly that year’s cohort had performed, the top 10 per cent of candidates would always receive an A grade, the next 15 per cent a B, a further 10 per cent a C, the next 15 per cent a D, and another 20 per cent an E. This fixed 70 per cent pass rate meant that if greater numbers started sitting A-levels, then an increase in the number of failures would be guaranteed, regardless of how well they did.

End of cosy assumptions

However, by then the cosy assumptions that the A-level was based on - that only a fixed and small proportion of elite pupils from selective grammar schools would go to university - were being challenged.

The number of students in UK universities doubled in less than a decade, from just over 200,000 in 1963 to more than 400,000 by 1970; the conversion of grammar schools to comprehensives was gathering pace; and the raising of the school-leaving age to 16 in 1972 lifted educational expectations for the whole population. The A-level was looking increasingly like a qualification from another era and would be plagued by calls for change for the rest of the century.

The first such call came in 1964, when the Schools Council - a stakeholders’ body on curriculum reform established by the government - proposed that A-levels should be divided into major and minor, or “half”, subjects. Pupils would study two of each, to give them more breadth.

The idea was rejected by schools. So was a plan for five A-levels to be studied in the first year of sixth form at the Q - or qualifying - level, narrowing to three in the final year at F level.

A further scheme, for pupils to study five rather than three subjects throughout the sixth form, came in 1972. Three subjects would be at normal (N) level, worth roughly half an A-level; another two would be at further (F) level, worth roughly three-quarters of an A-level.

But the universities were opposed and by 1979 the A-level could breathe a sigh of relief, when both Labour education secretary Shirley Williams and her Conservative successor, Mark Carlisle, said it should remain intact. But Carlisle also said he fully recognised that “A-levels do not meet the needs of all sixth-formers”.

His statement gained steadily greater significance in the 1980s as A-level entries continued to climb. The corresponding rise in students caught up in the automatic 30 per cent failure quota meant that the A-level’s role as a measure of sixth-formers’ achievements was rapidly losing credibility. The complaints about its narrow focus did not go away either.

A new assault on that front came when Margaret Thatcher’s government commissioned Gordon Higginson, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton, to look at A-level reform. His 1988 report expressed concern that the qualification was designed for top achievers and “children who were not good enough to go on [to university] were regarded as expendable”.

It also warned that sixth-formers were specialising too early and recommended a baccalaureate-style system of five, rather than three, subjects.

Professor Roger Brown, the first vice-chancellor of Southampton Solent, the city’s other university, knew Higginson well and recalls the outcome. “Mrs Thatcher assured him with tears in her eyes that, whatever happened, she wouldn’t overrule his conclusions,” he says. “Then, of course, she did precisely that.”

It would not be the last time that the A-level survived intact because it had friends in high places, anxious to preserve what had by now come to be known as the “gold standard”. Yet the same Thatcher administration had overseen a decision only a year earlier that, in the eyes of many, would do more than anything to tarnish that gold.

By 1987, pressure over the injustice of the arbitrary failure rate had come to a head and a new, partially “criterion-based” grading system was introduced, which abolished the fixed limits on proportions of candidates achieving each grade and introduced examiner judgement.

It was undoubtedly fairer. But it is now widely acknowledged that this approach had its own unfortunate side effect: subtle but persistent long-term grade inflation. On split decisions, examiners would tend to give students the benefit of the doubt. On its own, each decision made very little difference, but cumulatively, over the years, they pushed the proportion of pupils achieving top grades steadily upwards.

This trend, in the 1990s and noughties, led to the annual results day “dumbing down” debate: as critics ritualistically complained about falling standards, teachers fiercely defended their students’ hard work. The already embattled A-level found itself being criticised on another flank as a narrative about falling standards began to take hold. This was to play a major role in triggering the qualification’s mid-life crisis.

Grade inflation

The other key ingredient involved the ongoing calls for a broader focus. In 1989, the government responded with the advanced supplementary (AS) level - worth half an A-level - but rejected a call to make it an intrinsic part of the A-level. It took yet another official report (Dearing in 1997) and a new Labour government for that to happen.

The resulting Curriculum 2000 reform introduced a modular system that included AS levels, renamed as “advanced subsidiary”. It was a relatively modest plan that should have led to a slight broadening of the sixth-form curriculum while retaining the A-level brand. Instead, it plunged the A-level into a damaging controversy that exploded politically and could have killed off the qualification for good.

The system was an “accident waiting to happen”, according to Sir Mike Tomlinson, who led an inquiry into the affair. AS-levels were designed to be easier than the A2 final A-level exams but still made up half of an overall A-level. Students could also resit to improve their marks, all of which meant, Tomlinson says, that the number of top overall grades could be expected to increase.

But grade inflation had become a sensitive issue. Exam boards felt under pressure from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) to ensure that results did not shoot up compared with the previous year. But in 2002, with the AS-level grades already in, very little could be done apart from a fairly crude downgrading of A2 results. The result was that some pupils ended up with final grades dramatically lower than those their schools felt they deserved.

The scandal cost QCA chairman Sir William Stubbs his job, contributed to the resignation of education secretary Estelle Morris and led to thousands of exams being re-graded. It also cast a harsh light on the A-level’s long-standing problems. When Tomlinson was commissioned to conduct a long-term review of the future of qualifications for 14- to 19-year-olds, to many it seemed like a good time to put the qualification out of its misery. That was what Tomlinson thought: his 2004 report recommended that A-levels “should cease to be free-standing qualifications”. Most of the education world thought so, too, backing Tomlinson’s call for a Diploma combining academic and vocational study in a rare display of unity.

But Tony Blair had other ideas. With a general election in the offing, the prime minister judged it too politically risky to abolish an exam that, despite problems, retained the “gold standard” reputation. Once again, the A-level survived.

a-levels, tony blair, exams, michael gove, GCSEs

The traditionalists had won the day. But by now the reality of the A-level was far removed from the 1950s elite university entrance exam they craved. The modular system, with its multiple resit opportunities, was retained post-Tomlinson. And the A-level’s additional function as an accountability measure meant that schools had every incentive to use this as a means to maximise results. Unsurprisingly, the number of top grades continued to rise, prompting the introduction of a new A* grade in 2010.

Meanwhile, exam-board mergers had long since all but severed the direct link with universities, ending the latter’s role in setting the qualification. By 2010, some elite independent schools were entering higher-ability pupils for alternatives such as the International Baccalaureate or the Cambridge Pre-U, with A-levels favoured for the less able.

But if the A-level’s move to a mass-market qualification had left traditionalists unhappy, those on the other side of the debate were still perturbed by the same old problem: its lack of breadth. Ed Balls, the Labour children’s secretary, attempted to tackle this in 2008 with academic versions of the ill-fated Diploma. However, Michael Gove, his Conservative successor in the renamed Department for Education, abolished the qualifications before they were introduced.

So the A-level entered the new decade as a qualification that was used by almost everyone (in school sixth forms) but pleased next to no one.

Back to its roots?

Gove was determined to take the qualification out of this unhappy middle ground and back to its roots as a preparation for university study. “We will see fewer modules and more exams at the end of two years of sixth form and, as a result, a revival of the art of deep thought,” he said less than two months after taking office in 2010.

The erstwhile education secretary believed that the key to improving standards was universities taking ownership of the new A-levels. The only problem was that they didn’t want to, particularly the elite Russell Group. Universities were also actively opposed to government plans to decouple AS-levels from A-levels and make them a stand-alone exam. Gove’s ex-adviser Dominic Cummings has admitted that the institutions had to be “forced” into taking part in his boss’ reforms, scheduled to come in next year.

Not everyone opposes the changes. Tomlinson, for example, supports the idea of students being asked for more extended exam answers, greater university involvement and the end of the modular system. However, he and many others are concerned that the new A-levels will retain the elderly qualification’s Achilles heel, that lack of breadth. So although the “gold standard” seems set to survive for many more years, it is unlikely to be left in peace. It cannot be long before someone else takes a look at this remnant from the 20th century and proposes yet another spell under the knife.


Exam lifespans

5 years - Diploma

26 years - GCSE

33 years - School Certificate

37 years - GCE O-level

62 years - Gaokao, the Chinese university entrance exam

63 years - A-level


Popularity stakes

Number of summer A-level subject entries in England and Wales, by year:

1951 103,803

1975 498,883

1980 589,270

1985 634,557

2000 771,809*

2013 850,752*


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