Save the A-level

Independent heads are happy with exam and say it needs only minor reform to stop criticism

PRIVATE SCHOOL leaders are campaigning to save the A-level after damaging criticism has dismissed the former gold standard exam as "not fit for purpose".

A survey by the Society of Headmasters and Headmistresses of Independent Schools shows more than 90 per cent of its members are satisfied or very satisfied with the exam.

They argue that the A-level needs only modest reform and should not be scrapped in favour of new qualifications such as the international baccalaureate and the Cambridge pre-U which private schools, including Eton and Harrow, are considering.

A fortnight ago, the Prime Minister annouced plans to make the international baccalaureate available nationwide.

Ian Power, chair of the society's education committee, said: "It is time someone stood up and said that it is a good examination. Scrapping the A-level is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut."

He said rather than drop the exam, officials should tackle the "retake culture" which encourages thousands to resit AS papers in the hope of improving their overall grade. Changes made in 2003 allowing an unlimited number of resits have led to grade inflation and made it harder to pick out the brightest candidates.

The society's research shows nearly twice as many pupils receive A grades at AS level compared with the second year exams, suggesting that resits are pushing up marks. Assessing students' ability on their A2 performance alone would be an easy way to distinguish the brightest, said Mr Power. Barnaby Lenon, headmaster of Harrow School, agreed. He said: "What schools want is conservative change. That means preserving the A-level. I'm glad the pre-U is being introduced, but I see it as a safety net." The resit culture had affected grades at the private school. He said: "Many boys resit half their A-levels three times, and each time notch up additional marks. We agree there's a problem with grade inflation."

However, Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses'

Conference, feared such alterations would be "too little too late" to reassure some.

He said: "The trouble is we've been saying there needs to be changes for four or five years. It's led to frustration and that's why people are looking at alternatives."

The rival Cambridge pre-U will be available from 2008 and the international baccalaureate will be on offer to all state school pupils by 2010. Both are intended to offer pupils a wider range of subjects and more challenging questions. Meanwhile, A-level reforms, which will introduce an extended project and a new A* grade by 2010, have been rejected as tokenistic by critics.

Tony Little, headmaster of Eton, said: "It's not the amount of marks that's the issue, it's the question and the range of subjects. The A* won't address these, and so it won't help universities find the best candidates."

More than a quarter of papers now receive a grade A. The pass rate has risen to over 96 per cent.

A spokeswoman for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority said the cap on retakes had been removed to reduce bureaucracy for schools.

Ian Power, page 20 Double issue: the next TES will be published on January 5

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