Chance to change;FE Focus;Comment;Opinion

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
PUBLICATION of A-level results is a time when many students and parents celebrate success. There are others who regret their choices at 16. Often, they blame school or college for failing them.

The White Paper, Learning to Succeed, heralds a renewed determination to improve post-16 education. In particular, new learning and skills councils are to address weaknesses. They will need to fish through a sea of data from a huge range of courses.

Extracting salient details to determine strong or weak performance will be challenging for the councils, as it is for institutions, teachers and students.

Most institutions work hard to evaluate in-house strengths and weaknesses. Percentage pass rates at A-level are tabloid favourities, but are a crude measure. A cynical teacher can coerce weaker students to leave, thus improving pass rates. Value-added analysis is better, but still does not defeat the cynic leaning on weaker students.

Further Education Funding Council reports emphasise the issue of leavers. Data for sixth-form colleges (mainly A-level) shows that around 85 per cent of students pass, but that only 77 per cent stay the course. Neither figure is a triumph for the system. However, combine them and it seems that only 67 per cent of those who start actually succeeded. A failure rate of one in three suggests a problem whose magnitude goes beyond identifying weak providers.

Value-added analysis sheds some light on A-levels. Analysis shows that a student with five Cs and five Es at GCSE usually has little chance of success at A-level. A student with five Bs and five Ds has a good chance of success. There is undoubtedly a threshold below which students should not embark upon A-levels.

Unfortunately, value-added analysis is complex. Some

A-levels are harder than others; subjects have their own characteristics. Perhaps curriculum reform could start by developing common A-level standards?

Leavers' data sheds further light. In my own institution the drop-out rate varied from around 30 per cent for the weakest students to around 5 per cent for the most able. There was an almost straightline relationship between drop-out rates and GCSE grades. Perhaps this should not have been any great revelation. After all, it would seem likely that students drop out because they are finding the course hard to cope with.

The combination of value-added and leavers' data suggest many students are following A- levels who shouldn't be. A genuine commitment to raising standards would imply that merely monitoring this wastage is not enough. Reform is needed.

It would be in everyone's interest for there to be published GCSE entry criteria for an A-level programme. This would highlight the responsibility for a respectable success rate that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the awarding bodies share with institutions.

The GCSE grades needed to start A-levels should be publicly discussed. Currently, highly selective institutions can appear to be doing well, while other less selective institutions may seem to be weak. However, more important than finding the weak providers, institutions, parents and students should know what realistic entry criteria are.

Reform is certainly needed to reduce the large number of students whose experience is anything but Learning to Succeed.

Stephan Jungnitz is deputy principal of Ashton-under-Lyne sixth-form


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