Dumbing down? No way

22nd August 2008 at 01:00
Improved A-level results are a sign of better teaching and raised aspirations

It seems that a kind of mass hysteria has developed to find fault with our education system and undermine the achievements of hard-working young people. We are told A-levels have become easier and that standards are "plummeting". An utterly insignificant fluctuation of 1 per cent in some of England's Sats results invokes ministerial statements of disappointment.

Hearing all this in the car on our return from holiday, my 18-year-old daughter Natalie and I reflected on the hours she has spent studying over the past seven years, and our gratitude for her skilled and committed teachers at Llanishen High in Cardiff. The work she did for her three A- levels far exceeded anything I had ever needed to do when I did these exams in a distant and allegedly golden age.

On results day at St Cyres School in Penarth, the teachers are as nervous as the children as they walk through the door. Staff care passionately about their students and share the joy of their wonderful results or their disappointments.

This year, I have had the privilege of representing more than 14,000 members of the Association of School and College Leaders as its UK president. During visits to schools and colleges, I have been deeply humbled by the good practice and commitment that is so widely evident.

I have seen colleagues struggling against daunting odds to do their best for students, and seen courageous innovations providing unprecedented opportunities for them. Above all, I have seen a level of commitment that shows that school and college leaders all over the UK know there is always more to do. They certainly do not need more external pressure in order to be motivated.

I am also clear about why A-level results are improving. It is not rocket science, and is certainly not "dumbing down". More than ever, students know the value of gaining qualifications. The decision to go into the sixth form or college is carefully researched and supported by the first- class services provided by Careers Wales.

More students are setting their sights on higher education and understand which courses they need to prepare for university. Parents know the value of qualifications, and awareness of economic pressures is strong.

Teachers have a better understanding of what is required of students to succeed at A-level and are able to help them become more effective learners. The quality of support reflects the exceptional commitment of the staff who work at their schools and colleges.

As the AS-level system has developed, students and their teachers use the first year's results to focus their efforts and concentrate on those aspects of the courses that are most challenging.

The modular system - far from being an easy option - ensures that students develop consistent learning practices over the two years. As the needs of society and the economy have developed, the content of A-level courses have adapted appropriately. This does not mean they have become easier.

Above all, we have become better at unlocking the potential of more young people than ever. In Wales, we have some specific advantages that have a particularly beneficial effect on the quality of education. The Welsh baccalaureate is rapidly becoming the qualification of choice for 14 to 19-year-olds. This year, the first cohort to complete the advanced diploma of the bac graduated at university. In a recent interview with education minister Jane Hutt, these graduates were under no illusions about the head start the bac gave them. The skills required at university, and by employers, were an integral part of their learning throughout a far broader curriculum than a traditional A-level course.

We do not have the blight of league tables in Wales, and we have replaced time-wasting Sats with rigorous internal assessment conducted by trusted teachers. Instead of comparing schools on the basis of raw - and often misleading - data, we have the tools to look at the attainment and progress of every single student.

Thankfully, we have not had to witness anything like the public denigration of 638 schools in some of the most challenging areas of England on the basis of an arbitrarily chosen set of raw results.

Nevertheless, all this good news places a responsibility on our profession and our Welsh government, and leaves no room for complacency.

The success of this crucial period in the implementation of the Assembly government's Learning Country vision will depend entirely on our efforts and the government's commitment to ensure it is properly resourced. In particular, the government must ensure that the scarce resources reach the schools on the front line.

Working in partnership, we must look self-critically at what has been achieved and what must be done to overcome the still daunting challenge of variations in achievement within and between our schools.

We must seek out excellent practice and share it. This is more difficult in Wales, where good practice and support networks are much less developed than in England and investment in professional development is lower.

Back in school, the A-level debate was summed up for me by a student who, when she entered Year 7, was expected to progress no further than some middling GCSE grades.

On results day, she rushed up to me with a broad smile on her face. "Sir," she said excitedly. "I want to tell you about my AS results. Look - I can come back and do my A-levels.

"I've been worrying all summer that I would not get the grades I need to go into Year 13. Now I'm going to get my A-levels, and Welsh bac, and go to university."

We have every cause for optimism about our education service. But then I would say that. Natalie, my daughter, got straight As. Thanks Llanishen, and good luck for the new school year.

Brian Lightman is head of St Cyres Comprehensive in Penarth and outgoing president of the Association of School and College Leaders.

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