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Where A stands for anachronism

Once again, the annual ritual of belittling A-level results has arrived. As an examiner in A-level economics, it amuses me that the critics employ the same process of reasoning and judgment as the candidates who fail the subject. The conclusion that standards are falling is considered to be obvious, as the proportion of candidates who pass has risen.

This may be true, but what conclusion would it be sensible to draw if fewer candidates passed the A-level exam? Would this imply that standards are rising? Just what evidence would suggest that standards are, in fact, rising, or is that scenario one that is too ridiculous to be considered?

If an A-level economics student concluded that an increased pass rate indicated that it was easier to pass, I would expect them to add a Latin phrase, ceteris paribus - all other things remaining equal. It could be considered unusual for pass rates to increase yearly - if all other data remained unchanged.

Other data suggests that students may well be performing better each year. The increased staying-on rates of 16 to 18-year-olds will have changed the spread of those taking A-levels. A slightly smaller proportion of 18-year-olds took A-levels this year, and yet more 18-year-olds stayed in education than last year, so how can we explain this? Well, we could look to the introduction of Advanced GNVQ, which is providing an alternative route for those not cut out for A-level.

We cannot entirely ignore the impact of league tables. Schools may well be encouraging students to attempt grade-maximising subjects rather than traditionally difficult ones. In "high status subjects" such as mathematics, we see a fall in candidates from 64,919 to 62,188; in physics from 36,147 to 34,761 and in economics (which now has a major competitor in business studies) from 31,109 to 26,584. Of course, this highly selective data proves nothing, which is exactly my point. If you have a prejudice, you can usually find data to support it.

However, all this misses the real point concerning A-levels. This is that they tell us very little about the people who have gained them. There is much evidence to suggest that people with A grades in economics do not understand what determines the price of a bun, and that A grade physics students do not really understand the basic laws of the universe. Indeed, just how much better an historian is someone with a B grade at A-level than a C grade? The answer is impossible to find, because although exam boards publish descriptions of what grade A, C and E candidates might be expected to do, the actual marking is done by teachers after a heavy day at school.

The so-called "gold standard", the most important exam that young people take, only tells us that in a particular exam, marked by a particular examiner, at a particular time of night, one person who got a C (and makes it to a "good" university) gained marginally more marks than somebody with a D (who struggles to get accepted elsewhere). We know very little concerning what the student is actually capable of. Skills that the student has acquired in two years of full-time education go unrecognised.

There is an alternative. GNVQ Advanced qualifications are very specific in laying out what a student can actually do. If a student has passed a GNVQ Advanced, there is a list of knowledge and skills that the student has demonstrated. Unlike A-level, where a pass indicates that the student can do about 40 per cent and is unable to do 60 per cent of what is asked for; a pass at GNVQ indicates that the student can do all of it. But is that what we want from our exam system? Do we want a system of assessment that tells us just what a student can do? Are we really interested in what they can do? Perhaps it is much simpler to put them in a crude rank order. A-level is certainly better than GNVQ when it comes to awarding UCAS points.

It is strange that a government which has interfered so much in education has refused to touch the area that really does need urgent reform. A-levels are an anachronism. They were designed for an elitist system where only the most intellectually gifted would receive a post-16 education. They have clearly outlived their usefulness and desperately need conversion to something more appropriate. Incidentally, this year's A-level economics exam was far harder than the one I took 15 years ago!

Adrian Lyons is a senior lecturer at the University of Brighton, School of Education.

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