Slim pickings at the A-level buffet

8th March 1996 at 00:00
He's studying four A-levels, sitting his exams shortly, yet expresses concern that he does not have enough work to keep him busy." This was the gist of a conversation I had with a concerned parent shortly before her son sat his A-levels. He came away with four grade As, apparently achieved without raising sweat. A very bright boy, admittedly, but his example aggravated a concern which is emerging amongst those of us privileged to teach the academic elite of this country.

Many of our brightest youngsters appear undernourished by a diet of three A-levels either because its nutritional value has fallen or because their appetites have increased, or indeed both. A significant minority is emerging from school and applying to our top universities with four A-levels at least; or the standard three with two or three AS-levels attached. Having recently contacted 20 of our top independent schools, I can report that in almost all of them approximately a third of their sixth form students are in this category.

The ramifications of this development are more far-reaching than some may yet appreciate, but it appears to be occurring without anyone in a position of power, in government or the educational establishment, intending or directing it. The recent trend towards the modularisation of A-levels has had a part to play. Where previously the rigidity of a school's timetable and limited teaching resources made the teaching of extra A-levels impossible, the flexibility afforded by modularisation has made more time available so that it is easier to respond to the rising demand for more examined subjects.

Students can now retake modules to improve their performance and also relieve the endurance test of the summer exams at the end of the two-year course. This has contributed to the now-familiar phenomenon of "grade inflation" and has muddied the waters of the debate over declining standards. The increasing number of high grades being gained has certainly depreciated the currency of A-levels below the level of, say, five years ago. But one should not necessarily conclude from this that there has been a decline in quality. Rather, perhaps, staff and students have risen to the challenge. Whatever the case, the pressure is on to sit more exams.

The most intriguing aspect of the proliferation of A-levels lies in the question of who or what has been responsible for applying this pressure. It certainly did not originate with the schools who in the last decade have been far too busy responding to external demands to be able to launch any co-ordinated initiatives themselves. The top universities, to which most of the academic elite in our schools apply, are likely to begin to favour applicants with more than three A-levels, but this will be in response to pressure; there is no evidence that they have been responsible for causing the growth in the first place. And the forlorn attempts of the Government to broaden the base of sixth form study in the form of AS-levels have largely proved that it is difficult to sell unattractive goods to discerning and intelligent customers. Which leaves the possibility that it is the influence of parents and pupils in the market place that is now dictating the direction and pace of change within the educational system.

The Government has been encouraging all of us in education to become more receptive to customer demand, introducing league tables as a trading standard by which quality may be measured. Schools appear now to be responding to pressure from those pupils and parents who seek maximum advantage in the competitive world beyond the school gates. In the eyes of such consumers three A-levels, even at top grades, are no longer enough. Schools are starting to see the benefit to themselves of meeting this demand in order to win promotion up the league tables, in the belief that their position can influence the quantity and quality of their next intake. If a higher position in the tables can be reached by expanding the average number of A-levels per pupil, which school, would be brave or even foolish enough to resist the demand?

It is now nearly a decade since the Government ignored the recommendations of Professor Higginson's committee to broaden the base of the sixth form curriculum. Yet by unleashing the uncontrollable forces of the market it seems to have brought about its expansion without any guiding philosophy, other than "more means better".

For the moment we may look forward to our academic elite not only competing to achieve the top grades at A-level but also attempting to accumulate as many A and AS-levels as possible. It does not bear thinking about where that may leave the rest of their peer group.

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