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Breadth, with depth

The long-awaited reforms of the A-level offer flexibility to candidates. Now it is up to the universities and employers to respond accordingly, says Nicholas Tate.

SEPTEMBER 2000 will see the biggest change in post-16 qualifications since A-levels were introduced in the 1950s. The key features of the new system have been known for more than a year and most A-level specifications have now been accredited and are available on awarding-body websites.

We have been debating possible changes in this phase of education for more than 40 years: in the Crowther report of 1959, in the recommendations for Q and F (and N and F) levels in the 1960s and 1970s, in the Higginson report of 1988, and, most recently, in the 1996 Dearing recommendations which form the basis of current reforms.

It has often been said that change has taken so long because the necessity for it has been obvious but that the political will to push it through against minority conservative opposition has been lacking. This is a myth. The alternatives have been fiercely debated by all sides, not just the "forces of conservatism". The current system has continued for so long because in many ways it has served its purposes well. The depth of study required by A-levels continues to stretch the ablest in ways not seen in most other countries. Many post-16 programmes also provide a degree of breadth, through examined and non-examined general studies, that is frequently unrecognised.

This is why current reforms retain all the strengths of existing provision - choice, depth, the A-level "gold standard" - while increasing flexibility, introducing an intermediate level of certification, and facilitating greater breadth (through new AS levels, smaller advanced general national vocational qualifications and key skills). The reforms have been widely welcomed, by state and independent schools, universities and employers. There are three questions, however, on which assurances are being demanded.

Will the A-level "gold standard" be maintained? Examination standards derive from the level of demand of the specification; the level of demand of question papers; the mark scheme and grading arrangements. Every effort is being made to ensure that existing standards are maintained. Those with an inveterately pessimistic mindset who assume that "dumbing down" is bound to be taking place are wide of the mark. Not just are there demanding synoptic requirements for the first time in every new specification, but in many subjects rigour has been increased following the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's investigations into A-level standards over time.

Will the new A-levels cater for the most able? Dropping the quota system in the mid-1980s and the increasein the percentage of candidates obtaining As has led to concerns that A-levels no longer discriminate amongst the most able. Such concerns, however, fail to recognise that under a quota system real improvements would be hidden and discrimination would be at least partly illusory. The new system will give more information thanks to the introduction of new Advanced Extension Awards, based on A-level subject criteria which assess candidates' conceptual grasp of a subject to a higher level. These, together with the wider availability of candidates' actual marks, will provide still greater discrimination should that be needed. United States-style scholastic aptitude tests, mooted in some quarters, would almost certainly add little to what will be available and would have the disadvantage of distracting attention from the main task of raising and measuring subject attainment.

Will the reforms bring about the greater breadth most would like to see? All the indications are that most A-level programmes will be broader, with students supplementing a typical three A-level programme with an extra AS or smaller GNVQ and with key skills. Some will go further. These are moves in the right direction, but not as far as many would like.

Whether the incentive of some kind of overarching certificate will be needed remains to be seen. Interest in baccalaureate-type solutions of that kind has waxed and waned. A very small number of schools in England have found that the international baccalaureate meets their needs. Were there ever to be an official English baccalaureate, however, it would have to be more customised to our national education system (as in France) and to the key task of cultural maintenance and transmission - for example in the arts and humanities.

One of my predictions for the millennium is that the issue of an overarching certificate will not go away. Current reforms are creating the building blocks out of which such a certificate could be created, were the Government to decide that it was needed. In the meantime there is no reason why schools cannot construct their own baccalaureate-type arrangements using the new qualifications in order to reflect their own aims and strengths.

The additional flexibility now available offers many and varied possibilities. How far these opportunities are taken up will depend in part on signals from higher education and employers about what they are looking for from the current reforms. A clearer indication from higher education in particular would help enormously in relieving the anxieties in schools and colleges that inevitably accompany new opportunities of this kind.

Dr Nicholas Tate is the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority

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