An oldie but not a goldie

The A-level has been around for 50 years, but it should not be seen as a "gold standard", says Roger Murphy

This year has seen a series of events to mark the Queen's Golden Jubilee. There has been much looking back over the period since she came to the throne in 1952, remembering key events and reflecting upon the nature and the pace of change. Not much has survived that period unaltered, and education has seen widespread, fundamental changes. It is therefore worth remembering that A and O-level GCE examinations first took place in 1951, the year before the Queen's institution.

Since then there have been many attempts to reform the A-level, but it has remained the so-called "gold standard" of the education system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Meanwhile, O-level examinations were supplemented by CSEs from 1965, until the two were merged into the GCSE in 1988.

All of this illustrates the strong attachment that we have as a nation to our public examination system. In recent years many other tests and qualifications have been added, leading to a system that is rather too weighed down by this particular aspect of education.

Other countries have turned to our public examination boards for help and advice in setting up their own systems. Indeed our exams are widely regarded as among the finest in the world, despite the recent poor publicity that some of the awarding bodies have been receiving.

As we face a further set of examination results, and the likelihood of further debates about their purpose, credibility and usefulness in the 21st century, it is important to remember certain key principles.

First, educational assessment is a challenging and approximate science. It is easy to criticise assessment techniques and procedures, but far harder to come up with alternatives that make things better. So those who are tempted to pile in again this summer need to be ready with their more adequate alternatives.

Second, the kind of exams that we have and the framework within which they operate are essentially political decisions. Hopefully, those taking such decisions listen to the advice of assessment experts first. Nevertheless there is no point in criticising the awarding bodies for a system that they did not create.

There has always been much criticism of exams, whatever changes are made to them. People were critical of GCE in the 1950s, and it was introduced as a result of widespread criticisms of the School Examinations Certificate.

Third, although the basic framework of GCE exams has not changed that much in 50 years, the extent of curriculum coverage and their current large uptake are all major changes that are highly significant. We have now reached a stage where around 50 per cent of each age cohort achieve five or more A*-C grades at GCSE and slightly more than one-third acquire two or more A-level passes. That is a tremendous achievement for a system that was designed originally to meet the needs of an elite minority of around 20 per cent of students, who were selected for a grammar school education. These are also vital steps towards the Government's ambition of seeing half of young people going on to benefit from the experience of higher education.

There have been other welcome changes in the past 50 years - not least the move towards bringing the workings of the examining boards out from behind a cloak of secrecy. Teachers, students and parents now have access to far more information, which has helped them to understand better a system that has become so important to them.

Also, the availability of practice papers, marking schemes and syllabus guidelines have all helped students to prepare much better to produce their best efforts in the exams themselves. And of course there is now more emphasis on coursework, allowing students to bring forward wider evidence of their achievements than can be produced under exam conditions.

Some have found these changes difficult to accept. Unless everything is just as it was when they took school exams, they seem to believe that there is a big educational conspiracy to undermine their achievements by making exams easier.

The reality is that today's exams are quite unlike their predecessors. They are suitably challenging in relation to the very different curriculum that exists now. Educational standards have changed and we would be in a sorry state if they had not. Today's curriculum and priorities are hopefully highly relevant to life in the 21st century.

My proposal for marking the Golden Jubilee in relation to this year's public exams would be for everyone to agree never to refer to the A-level as a gold standard ever again. A-level has had to shift continuously with the times to remain relevant and appropriate. Unless it continues to adapt to new circumstances, it will not survive to see any further royal celebrations.

Roger Murphy is professor of education at the University of Nottingham

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