Is the bac pilot worth an A grade?

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 almost 97 per cent of Welsh 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 by the mainstream media. In fact, only a third of young people actually take A-levels. Nevertheless, there are clearly no grounds for complacency. The fact that pass rates creep up year after year makes it increasingly difficult to argue that the A-level is worth precisely what it was 20 years ago. The same applies to A grades. Yes, they are still much harder to obtain than many pundits like to suggest. But if almost a quarter of awards to Welsh students are at A grade compared to fewer than 10 per cent in 1985. they will not carry the same cachet, even if they deserve to.

But this week, of course, most of the attention has been on the Welsh baccalaureate's worryingly high drop-out rate rather than the perceived devaluing of the A-level gold standard.

Plaid Cymru is guilty of hyperbole in claiming that the drop-out figures represent an "abject failure". However, it is very disappointing that only just over a third of the first group of advanced-level baccalaureate students successfully completed their courses. Yes, it was only a pilot and therefore some teething problems were inevitable. But the pupils who were forced to abandon their bac studies because of the heavy workload may be less sanguine about the experience. Unlike the course designers, most of them will not have a second chance to get it right and will now be wondering whether they should have devoted more time to their A-levels.

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