A-level results are in, so what can we learn?

17th August 2012 at 01:00

When A-level results are announced, media attention is inevitably focused on grade inflation, falling standards, lack of rigour and any other perceived weakness of the examinations. Minimum reference will be made to the hard work of students and their teachers who, after all, can only work within the system established by our politicians.

With recent announcements by the secretary of state of his plans to reform the A-level system, it is timely to remind ourselves of a little of the history of A levels that remain for ever in some minds as the "gold standard".

A levels were introduced in 1951, replacing the Higher School Certificate, and made available only to students in selective schools. This resulted in a post-16 curriculum that was highly specialised, academic and seen by some as narrow. Effectively the system was designed around the needs of the top 15 per cent of students and as the entry qualification for higher education. Almost from the time of its introduction various concerns were expressed. Most related to the early specialisation, while a few commentators believed the standards associated with the examinations were not well defined. Sound familiar?

After the school leaving age was raised to 16 in 1972, post-16 staying-on rates continued to rise. In 1976, only a quarter of 16- and 17-year-olds were in full-time education; by 1990 this had risen to 39 per cent and by 2011 it was nearly 81 per cent. A levels continued to be the only courses available to this growing number of students, although much later vocational A levels were introduced alongside other vocational courses.

The concerns with A levels continued, mostly centred on the recurring argument about early specialisation. The Schools Council (1979), the Higginson report (1988), the Dearing review (1996) and my Tomlinson report (2005) argued for a broader post-16 curriculum. All ultimately foundered to a greater or lesser extent on the determination of successive governments to defend and retain the "gold standard" A-level qualification. This was despite increasing concerns with almost all aspects of the system.

Changes were eventually made as a result of the introduction of Curriculum 2000, which introduced the AS level, a halfway house between GCSE and the full A level. Other reforms have included the introduction of the A* grade, the modularisation of A levels and the associated resit option for all modules. Intended to lead to a broadening of the post-16 curriculum, the evidence is that this was not achieved to any marked extent.

This brief resume of the history of the A-level system illustrates that there have always been concerns with the system, and these remain today. These centre on the examinations themselves, the knowledge base of A levels, the failure to develop key study skills required by higher education and the old chestnut of breadth versus depth. Examination results have come to be high stakes data about the performance of the student, the school and the system itself. Not surprisingly this pressure has led to more teaching to the test. So what is to be done?

Well, to start with we need to ask some fundamental questions. These include: which students are A levels designed for today?, who should determine the content of the A levels?, and how can the skills needed by students in higher education and work be developed within a single subject system? More significant is the whole question of the 14-19 phase of education and the imminent raising of the education leaving age to 17 in 2013 and to 18 in 2015. However, there are few, if any, signs that the present government wishes to revisit this matter. If this assertion is true, then what changes to A levels should be made?

Well, here are my proposals, some of which are to be made, others yet to be considered:

(i) First, make changes to the assessment system to have more synoptic questions and ones that require extended writing, remove the resit option totally and ensure that the papers as a whole differentiate much better between candidates, particularly the more able. There also needs to be further attention given to the process around grade boundaries.

(ii) Ask higher education and the subject bodies to devise a common core of knowledge and skills for each subject and have these cores included in all A-level specifications. Furthermore, ask higher education to set the questions for this common core. This would ensure greater commonality in content of each A-level subject and reduce the need for first-year degree courses to repeat so much A-level work.

(iii) Abandon the modular structure to enable the end of resits and the return of a terminal assessment.

(iv) Require all A-level studies to include a core of maths to support the subject(s) being studied. This maths could be an integral part of the specification (particularly in the physical sciences where almost all quantitative work has been removed) or it could be a separate study where maths is not being studied at A level.

While these changes could help restore a level of confidence in the A-level system, in the long term there has to be a sensible, informed debate about the curriculum and assessment system needed in the 21st century. Knowledge alone is not sufficient (and in any case is readily available today as a result of information technology), when higher education and employers are increasingly arguing for the importance of skills such as teamwork, the management of time and work, problem-solving and oral confidence to make a case and persuade others of its validity. A levels alone cannot meet these needs, even if reformed. The answer may lie in a baccalaureate structure, a model that is employed widely in many countries, but I have made that argument recently. I live in hope that sometime in the future reform of the system for 14- to 19-year-olds will involve a baccalaureate, although some will no doubt continue to think I am a dreamer.

Sir Michael Tomlinson is the author of the Tomlinson report.

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