Ann Mroz

A levels: the answer to a question we no longer ask?

Forty years ago, A-level results hardly got any newspaper coverage - now we have something bordering on hysteria, writes Ann Mroz

Are we asking the right questions about a levels?

In 1975, the only coverage of A levels at this time of year in the Times Educational Supplement was a small story tucked away on page 3. It wasn’t even a report about the results of that year. Instead it was the publication of provisional figures for the previous year’s results. Such was life in the 1970s.

Compare this with the attention A-level results get now and especially the acres of coverage in the national press. News stories; comment pieces; photographs of leaping, smiling pupils; the perennial call for post-qualification applications – it’s all standard fare.

To see why this has all ramped up, it’s important to understand the A level’s history. When it was conceived after the Second World War, it was intended for only a tiny segment of the population – a small, fixed proportion of elite pupils from selective grammar schools who would go on to university (which is why university boards set the exams). In 1950, only 3.4 per cent of young people went into higher education – and by 1970 it was still only 8.4 per cent.

Consider the massive changes since then. With Tony Blair’s desire to get 50 per cent of young people experiencing higher education, the proportion reached 49 per cent in 2012 and has stayed roughly the same. The marketisation of higher education has continued apace, with competition for potential students reaching fever pitch.

What that all adds up to is a sharply increased focus on young people’s fortunes. Compared with the 1970s, the proportion of parents taking a very keen interest in what goes on with A levels is more than four times higher, hence the rise in coverage from the national press – plus, of course, there’s been a massive increase in marketing from universities to lure potential students.

Back in the 1970s, A-level results barely registered on the nation’s consciousness. Today you can’t escape them. Combine all that with reforms that have made the exams more linear and cliff-edge, along with the increased course content to get through, and the pressure on young people becomes huge. A survey from the NEU teaching union reveals that most teachers feel that reformed A levels have led to deterioration in students’ mental health (see bit.ly/examshealth).

But what’s the answer? A long, hard look at what we are trying to achieve with the A level would be a start. The Michael Gove-initiated reforms have taken it back to its roots as a preparation for university study. Gove believed that the key to improving standards was universities taking ownership of the new A levels. Unfortunately, they didn’t want to do that. They were also opposed to decoupling AS levels from A levels. So now we have an exam made tougher for universities, which didn’t want it in the first place.

It also seems incredibly unfair to have made the A level more difficult when the very institutions the exam is designed for hand out unconditional offers willy-nilly. These certainly take the pressure off some lucky students – but hugely increase it for the teachers and heads held to account.

The system of predicted grades is unfair, too, but we’ve been banging on about PQA for years. It’s incredibly complex and would involve upending the entire school calendar because you can bet your boots universities won’t shift. Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner is the latest to call for it. Labour thought about it in 2006, fudged it, then lost an election. Interestingly, the shadow higher education minister at the time, one Boris Johnson, described Labour’s recommended reforms as “a muddle” that was “likely to add to the burdens on teachers and universities”.

There are no easy answers. While universities must either fill places or go bust, the marketing will only intensify. The bottom line, unfortunately, is that if you want a market in higher education, the consumers in schools are going to have to pay the price.

@AnnMroz

This article originally appeared in the 16 August 2019 issue under the headline “Are A levels the answer to a question we have ceased to ask?”

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