Time to come to the defence of our new gold standard

Ian Power Chair of the Society of Headmasters and Headmistresses of Independent Schools' education committee and head of Lord Wandsworth College in Hampshire

Are A-levels no longer fit for purpose? Will they soon be overtaken by the international baccalaureate (IB) and the eagerly awaited Cambridge Pre-U?

A cursory glance at the media coverage since the publication of this year's A-level results would leave even ardent supporters of the A-level on the ropes. So, is this qualification past its sell-by date? And are schools the safe haven of the tried and tested for the challenge of the all-new post-16 qualifications?

Not so, according to the findings of a recent survey of the 100 members of the Society of Heads of Independent Schools. About 90 per cent of respondents said they were satisfied or very satisfied with the A-level and saw its main strengths as the ability to specialise, the range of subjects available, and the availability of tried and tested exams. The main weaknesses were seen as a lack of stretch and challenge, limited opportunities for independent study and grade inflation.

Members noted that revisions to A-level specifications would address the concern over stretch and challenge, and give opportunities for more independent study. That leaves only the question of grade inflation. The announcement last week of a new A* grade at A-level from 2010 might seem an obvious way to address this, but the survey sought another approach.

With so much support for A-level and its current grading system, analysis of more than 4,500 AS and A-level results, in 25 subjects, was aimed at finding whether a separation of AS and A2 module results would enable greater discrimination between the best candidates without the need for an A*. It showed that grade inflation is mainly due to inflated AS scores and a strong re-take culture. This was the case in all the subjects analysed, but differences were less apparent in those with substantial coursework assessment, such as art, design and technology and drama.

The analysis also showed that A2 module scores are much more effective in discriminating between the very good and the excellent, something our most selective university departments are crying out for. The proportion of candidates achieving A grades at A2 was significantly smaller than those achieving A grades at A-level overall, and there was a very strong correlation (95 per cent) between candidates achieving nominal A grades at A2 and those who achieved more than 90 per cent at A-level, where the new A* grade boundary is likely to be set. The separate A2 aggregation also had the advantage of identifying "late-developers" who achieved higher scores in A2 modules than AS.

There was overwhelming support for the promotion of A-level as a credible post-16 course and qualification. Members also recognised the importance of alternative post-16 qualifications, such as the IB, and the option for schools to offer these alternatives where they were deemed the best option for their students. Overall, the survey concluded that A-level is still a prized exam for most students and schools. By de-coupling A2 results from overall A-level results, the most selective university departments could discriminate between the very best candidates without the need for an A* grade.

Furthermore, a complete de-coupling of AS and A2 would provide an even more effective means of discriminating between the best and the very best. When this is put alongside the planned reduction in the number of modules and the introduction of more stretch and challenge at A2, one can conclude that if A-level in its current form is dead, then A-level in its revised form is very much alive and the preferred choice for most schools and students.

The question that remains is whether either of the main political parties is prepared to come out in support of the new A-level and the conclusions of this survey, or sit back and allow the "gold standard" to be tarnished by advocates of the IB and the untried and untested Cambridge Pre-U. It is time for someone to come to the defence of our national examination system before it is too late.

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