We must ratchet down the macho language of 'difficulty'

Today’s students are proving themselves savvy and open-minded, despite the so-called rigour of the new-look A levels

Geoff Barton, ASCL, association of school and college leaders, leadership, National Education Act

There’s good news and bad news buried in today’s A-level results. The good news is what they tell us about the young people who sat the exams.

A politically-savvy generation has demonstrated through their subject choices that they are preparing to take their place as global citizens, and that they won’t be defined by narrow stereotyping.

Here’s what I mean. Today has seen something of a milestone with female entries overtaking male entries in the sciences for the first time.

This upends a tiresome assumption that male students tend towards science and female students prefer the arts. In reality, the gap between the genders in terms of science entries has not been as great as some may have assumed over the past 20 years. But it is a noteworthy moment that it has now closed completely. Female students now see the sciences as being as much part of their entitlement as their male counterparts.

This has not happened by accident. There has undoubtedly been a shift in social attitudes over the past two decades and this will be part of the reason why the gender gap in sciences has closed.

But it’s also precisely because of what has been happening inside schools and colleges. Here leaders have made enormous efforts to encourage female students to take up sciences – for example, by appointing excellent female science teachers to key teaching and leadership roles, and inviting former students back to talk about their degree in, say, chemistry, thus deploying the energising power of the role model.

There is also some good news in terms of modern foreign languages with an increase in entries to A-level Spanish, again suggesting a generation that sees itself as being globally connected.

But this has to be balanced against the continuing decline in French.

Various factors may be behind the relative success of Spanish. It could be that young people are more exposed to Spanish-speaking cultures through the media, sport and travel than has been the case in the past and that this is fuelling a welcome increase in uptake of this subject.

However, the fact remains that modern foreign languages remain under intense pressure in general. Because uptake is smaller in these subjects than many other A levels and GCSEs, they are vulnerable to cuts at a time of enormous funding pressures on schools and colleges.

And there are other problems. It is often hard to recruit teachers in modern foreign languages, an issue which is likely to become even more problematic post-Brexit, and there is a widespread perception that languages are severely graded, which deters students from taking them.

The increase in Spanish entries, while a positive note, is not enough. We need a better national strategy to improve the uptake of modern foreign languages, starting with a rethink of primary school provision.

And now for the bad news. We have seen a decrease in the uptake of A-level English and in A-level maths. The decline in English entries is particularly severe. This cannot be unconnected to the fact that new specifications have been introduced in GCSE English language and GCSE English literature, which we fear are sucking the joy out of the subject.

We have no issue with qualifications being challenging. But challenging need not mean grinding. And the evidence is that young people are worn down by the sheer amount of content that needs to be memorised for English literature, and the heavy emphasis on analysis and historic texts in English language.

This is not a good way to inspire a broader love of English and we need to look again at these specifications to see if we can do more to revive the subject.

Our other concern comes under the heading of pressure. This year is the third phase of the introduction of reformed A levels and GCSEs, which are designed to be more rigorous than their predecessors. 

For those students who go first in these qualifications, the pressure is particularly intense because of the lack of past papers and unfamiliarity with the new qualification. But raising the bar in this way will continue to impact on future students too.

This does not necessarily affect outcomes in that the grading system is set up to take account of changes in specifications and the difficulty of papers so that students are not disadvantaged from one year to the next. That is, of course, a good thing, and the setting of grade boundaries should be seen in this context.

What raising the bar does affect, however, is the experience of students. The government lauds the idea of increased rigour because it stretches the most able students and prepares them better for university, training and future careers.

But is this how young people feel when they are revising for and sitting such challenging qualifications? And what in particular is the impact on young people who are not in the top tier of attainment when they sit in an exam hall and find they cannot answer large sections of an exam paper?

Has the pursuit of rigour resulted in too many young people feeling demoralised and deflated? Is it encouraging a love of learning or making the experience of education a chore?

We think that these are all legitimate questions and that it is timely and sensible for the government, Ofqual and the exam boards to review the specifications and assess their impact on young people.

We are not asking for immediate wholesale reform. There has been far too much of that in the recent past.

But we must continue to look at all specifications, and call an immediate halt to any more of the macho language of "difficulty", so that we can begin to ratchet down the pressure on young people and their teachers.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you