'A-level reforms are a throwback to a golden age that never was'

15th August 2014 at 16:30

Richard Atkins, Association of Colleges president, and principal of Exeter College, writes:

The dust is beginning to settle after A-levels day. On Thursday 14 August, as principal of Exeter College, my working day began at 8am. I went into college to welcome some of our 800 A-level students who were patiently waiting to collect their envelopes. Congratulations go to all students (and teachers) on their A-level success, particularly the 300,000 who studied in a further education or sixth form college.

As usual, they greeted their results with a mixture of smiles, tears, laughter and hugs. There was a lot of nervousness and excitement amongst both the students and the teaching staff. In the English psyche, this event has become one of the more emotional "coming of age "ceremonies that we have.

As usual, the media continuously carried A-level stories among their headlines, and while A-levels remain key qualifications for many young people it does rather re-enforce the myth that most young people take A-levels and progress to university.

As in other FE colleges, a significantly larger proportion of our students are studying for vocational qualifications such as BTEC and City & Guilds, but sadly they don't have a national "coming of age" day, which is as well recognised.

A-levels have been largely unchanged since Curriculum 2000, when the modular structure and AS levels were first introduced to a system initially created in 1949. They have been long regarded as the 'gold standard' of the English qualifications system and politicians have been nervous about changing them.

The current structure of AS Levels and A2s, with no January examinations or re-sits, seems to have worked well this year despite some concerns that we had about students not being able to sit these mid-year stepping stone exams.

National A-level results are almost exactly the same as last year, with the pass rate of 98 per cent just 0.1per cent lower than last year, and high grades (A*, A and B) at 52.4 per cent being 0.5 per cent lower. Indeed the percentage of students gaining A* grades rose to 8.2 per cent, up 0.6 per cent.

Given the additional 30,000 university places this year, and the demographic downturn in the number of 18-year-olds, there should be plenty of available higher education places at universities and colleges for this year's successful students.

I welcomed the recent changes that have been made to A-levels to date, namely the ending of re-sits and January examinations. Along with pretty well every other educationalist, I am much more concerned and sceptical about the benefits of the next round of changes.

Two-year linear A-levels appear to be a throwback to a mythical 'golden age'. This structure will not reflect the modern world or the structure of university degree courses, nor will it develop some of the employability skills that our young people will need in the future.

Students benefit from a range of assessment methods, with final examinations being the most important element, but basing two years of study on one examination sitting is very limited indeed. If the reforms are implemented as planned, we can expect to see a drop in pass rates and, more importantly, another barrier to social mobility.

Students benefit and learn from assessment stepping stones along the way, and this reflects the world in which they will live and work as adults. My memory of the golden age was that luck played a much greater part in results.

Colleges frequently recruit A-level students from many secondary schools, some with their own sixth forms and some without. Young people choose colleges because of the range of subjects and options on offer, the more vibrant class sizes, the specialist teaching staff and the ideal preparation that colleges offer for university life. For academically able students, colleges enable them to study alongside similarly talented students from a wide geographical area.

I want young people, universities and employers to have an academic public examination for those aged 18 and over which is consistent, robust and contemporary.

This qualification should provide academic rigour, but also encourage the development of key employability skills. I believe the AS and A2 system offers this mix, provides sensible stepping stones and prepares students for university or employment. Regular reviews and updates are essential, but to tear this up and go back to a system discredited 20 years ago, is not in the best interests of anyone.


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