So – another exam season. Except, both this week and next, it’s not just any examination season. It’s the culmination of decisions hastily made a few years back. It’s the beginning of a long-term verdict on the reforms hatched in the Govean laboratory of 2010 to 2015.
Today we see thousands of students receive their A-level and vocational results in subjects that have gone through a reform process. The content has changed and, in particular, the mode of assessment has changed. Next week, we’ll see the consequences of a GCSE remodelling process that leaves the key stage S4 qualification almost unrecognisable from the bright-eyed new kid on the qualification block it was back in 1988.
So what are the main messages from today’s results day?
First, at A level and in vocational qualifications such as BTEC and Cambridge Nationals, we see how much teachers have done to ensure stability and continuity amid a maelstrom of change. Anyone who ever questions teacher commitment or professionalism should look at what colleagues in schools and colleges have helped young people to achieve today. The fact that for many members of the press there was no tale of crisis or chaos is testament to an army of teachers, examiners and school and college leaders.
Secondly, there are the students. A generation fatigued by being the educational guinea-pigs of too many Westminster wheezes has emerged from two years in an assessment system which was new to them. In any rational approach to qualification reform, we’d start with the curriculum – the skills, knowledge and attributes society needs of our young people – and would then move on to how to assess it – with nuance, with intelligence.
Instead, examination reform feels to many of us to have been driven by ideology laced with nostalgia. We all know that a modular A-level system created too many distractions for teachers and too much downtime for students – revising, sitting exams, sitting at home on study leave. All of this needed review.
But the decoupling of AS from A level – combined with severe funding pressures – means that we may well look back and see that we presided over the dismantling of the arts and modern foreign languages in many state schools.
The AS level's death knell
At a time when we need our young people proudly to take their place as global citizens, we forget at our peril the philosophical optimism that gave rise to the introduction of AS levels. Employers, universities and our international competitors had all noted the narrowness of our post-16 education. AS would help to address this. It would allow a would-be doctor to add an additional subject to their A levels in chemistry, maths and biology. An AS in French or drama or English literature would add breadth to their study and their outlook.
The AS was designed to do something even more important. As part of a national mission to increase the numbers ultimately heading to university, sixth forms needed to become more inclusive, more determined to nurture those not from bookish backgrounds.
As a transition from GCSE to a full A level, the AS qualification provided a staging-post for less confident youngsters, a recognised qualification at the end of their first year that could help them to know in which subjects to continue, where now to specialise.
Universities liked this. Students and many teachers liked it. It reflected, after all, the kind of learning and assessment our universities have as the norm.
The decoupling of the AS from the A level, making it a standalone one-year qualification, represents its death knell. Against a funding crisis, which is especially severe at post-16 level, few schools can afford to run a separate suite of AS levels – hence the big decline we have seen in entries this year.
Any school and college leader will tell you that if you have to make cuts, you target the smallest courses first. Thus the rejection of the broadening principles of the AS and the need to reduce costs mean that small subjects are in spiralling decline at A level. Thus today we see a continuing fall in entries to A-level music, drama, German and French.
As our country becomes more insular, so, it seems, does its curriculum. Meanwhile, it’s clear from the rise in the EPQ – the extended project – that many institutions crave ways of helping students to show breadth, a suite of skills and a set of knowledge beyond the confines of their A levels.
The government talks about social justice. But the underfunding and reform of post-16 education undermines the arts and languages in state schools and colleges, and takes away the kind of supportive AS structure that helps young people from less academic backgrounds.
Schools and colleges are where society educates its young people.
We mustn’t be the generation of teachers and leaders who watched as ambition, social justice and creativity were quietly sidelined. That mustn’t be our legacy and it shouldn’t be the government’s either.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton
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