For years there have been calls to replace them with a wider, less exclusive exam. Elaine Williams reports
"You know where you are with A-levels." These sentiments of Tim Boswell, a former Conservative higher education minister, earlier this decade, have bedevilled attempts to reform the post-16curriculum both before and since.
When they were introduced in 1951, A-levels were intended to select students for university entrance; elitist, academic, single subject examinations taken in the first decade by approximately 5 per cent of the school population.
They have evolved substantially, incorporating new, applied subjects, new kinds of syllabus and more modules to the alarm of traditionalists. Every year, like inseparable sparring partners, alongside the calls for greater breadth post-16, come the demands for greater rigour inA-levels. It is argued that they have been stretched far too far beyond their original brief.
Now they are taken by just over a third of 16 to 19-year-olds who stay on in full-time education. But while the percentage of students achieving high A-level scores is rising, a third of A-level students either abandon their courses or fail their exams.
A-levels remain a minority pursuit yet their influence dominates the post-16 curriculum, ensuring that British students are limited to narrow specialisations or, if they have chosen a vocational pathway, condemned to a sense that they are second-best.
Moreover, despite the introduction of GNVQs, the majority of post-16 advanced level students in this country study fewer subjects and are taught for less than half the time of their continental peers. During the last 30 years, demands for a broader post-16 curriculum and the breaking down of the academic-vocational divide have developed into today's loosely-formed consensus, yet no minister has dared initiate root-and-branch reform of theA-level "gold standard".
Members of the Labour Government remain party to this conservatism. New Labour is preserving its reforming zeal for the raising of standards in compulsory schooling and sees no point in opening up a second front. The "you-know-where-you-are" quality of A-levels is too attractive to cautious ministers such as Stephen Byers, in charge of school standards.
The Government favours a strong post-16 framework but is not prepared to make the running . Any big changes for a future parliament will come about through pressure from the bottom up, not the other way round.
Attempts to tackle the over-specialisation engendered by the A-level system began as far back as the Sixties.
In 1966, the Schools Council raised a plan to introduce "major" and "minor" subjects. Both schools and universities rejected the proposals, doubting that minority subjects would be taken seriously. Over the years this has become a familiar criticism of attempts at reform.
In 1968 the Dainton Report on the shortage of scientists recommended broadening the sixth-form curriculum as the best way to increase the number of students studying science. Little notice was taken of its recommendations.
In 1973 the Schools Council tried again with N-level (normal) and F-level (further) exams, both to be studied over two years. Again schools and universities objected on the grounds that, because lower achievers might be able to cope with N-levels, this devalued them as a mechanism for broadening the curriculum of high achievers.
In 1979 this exercise was revisited when the Schools Council, in response to a request from Mark Carlisle, the then Secretary of State for Education, came up with I-levels (intermediate). These were to be a means of both broadening the curriculum taken by some traditional sixth formers and of meeting the needs of lower-ability pupils. Again schools and universities objected. In his historical analysis in the book Dearing and Beyond, Professor Michael Young, head of the Post-16 Education Centre at the Institute of Education, London, argues that, unless it can be shown that breadth enhances specialist study, it will always be seen at the price of depth and therefore associated with lower standards.
In 1984 Sir Keith Joseph introduced the "long, thin" AS-level - half the content of an A-level, to be taken over two years and to the same depth and standard in order to extend the curriculum of bright pupils. Its take-up has been poor.
In 1988 the Higginson Report endorsed arguments for broadening A-levels and proposed a five-subject examination of "leaner" and "tougher" A-levels. The Higginson Committee was set up to clarify the principles on which the A-level syllabus should be based and seems to have gone well beyond its brief. Professor Gordon Higginson, then vice-chancellor of Southampton University, critically compared A-level instruction to "opening the top of the head and pouring in a bucketful of facts, then after two years putting in a dipstick and saying that this is about three-quarters full so we will give her a B grade". The Conservative Government was virtually alone in rejecting Higginson, but even as the report was being launched by the Department of Education and Science, its key recommendations were being disowned in the Commons by Kenneth Baker, then Secretary of State for Education.
In 1991 the Government produced a White Paper laying down the triple track qualification system (NVQ, GNVQ, A-level). Most developments since, culminating in the three Dearing reports and Labour's "Qualifying for Success" consultation paper, have represented attempts to establish a framework to include all qualifications in order to mitigate the divisiveness of the three-track system.