A-levels do really need a rethink

19th August 2005 at 01:00
Kingsley Amis, that famous old curmudgeon, would be particularly disgruntled this week, were he still alive. How he would have harrumphed at the news that 96 per cent of candidates have passed their A-levels this summer. "The universities today are full of students who do not understand what study is about and who are painfully bewildered by the whole business and purpose of university life," he complained back in 1968. "More has meant worse."

How much worse must it be now, then, when almost no one fails A-levels? Or so we are led to believe. In fact, only a third of young people actually take A-levels. Nevertheless, it does increasingly look as if our examinations system needs a radical overhaul. Vocational qualifications are always undervalued and undercelebrated. (How many people know that 100,000 students will qualify for higher education this year on the basis of good BTEC results?) But now public respect for A-levels, the gold standard we have clung to since 1951, may be falling too.

So where do we go from here? Ministers have said that tougher questions will be provided for the brightest A-level candidates. They have also called for a new system of vocational diplomas - in areas such as ICT, engineering and construction - to be introduced in 2008. Will this "rag-bag of minor adjustments" - as some heads have characterised it - amount to a solution? Almost certainly not. The Tomlinson proposals that were rejected in February were less than perfect. However, Sir Mike's plans for a four-tier diploma system that would incorporate both academic and vocational qualifications look more sensible than the Government's compromise arrangement, which is likely to perpetuate the present sheep-and-goats divide between the academic and vocational.

But how can the Government be persuaded to think again? As the chief exams regulator, Ken Boston, has said, we may simply have to wait for an even stronger groundswell of opinion in favour of a Tomlinson-type system. When it comes to exam reform, governments tend to follow public opinion rather than lead it.

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