A-levels fail to make the grade

We need a well educated, flexible work force. We cannot allow cramming to replace learning
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The Independent Culture
IT'S THE A-level season again: the time of year when we see weeping or ecstatic teenagers on our screens, when we shake our heads and question whether standards are slipping. And the cause of all the fuss: three, maybe four letters on a page. The A-level grades. Yet what is rarely asked is whether education is being served by this annual frenzy. For the story does not begin and end on one day in August. The pressure on the beleaguered adolescent is intense, and comes from two directions.

No sooner have the schools received the listings of the grades than the number-crunching begins. They know that before the month is out the papers will be publishing the annual league tables. These are largely constructed on the average point scores of A-level results. An A grade gives you 10 points, a B eight, and so on down to E. To figure anywhere in the top 100 schools almost two-thirds of the total entry for A-level need to be As and Bs. For a school to be in the top, 10 the number is nearer 90 per cent.

Every year these schools rely on a substantial number of teenagers getting perfect scores of three or four grade As to compensate for their less successful contemporaries. A momentary lapse in concentration from one of these high-fliers, an off-day in June, can not only scupper their chances of a coveted place at one of the top universities, but can send the overall point score of the school crashing. So intense is the competition for premier position that only a few candidates may make a difference of up to 50 places in the league table.

But institutions are more robust than the individual who has failed to make the grade. Many courses also require nothing but top marks. Oxbridge has long demanded strings of As, as has veterinary science. Law courses at the older universities look for As and Bs as do other popular arts subjects such as English. As the number of applicants increases, and the competition for places intensifies, the pressure to succeed is overwhelming. One slip and you're out.

The inexorable rise of A-level passes and grades is a function of market forces at work both at university and at school. It was not always thus. Top public schools often showed a healthy disrespect for A-levels, believing them to be a tad mundane. Oxbridge demanded only two Es once their own exam, which looked for the quirky touch, had been passed, and they were not alone. Twenty-one years ago I required only two Es to get into Nottingham University to read English and American studies, where now I would need at least three Bs. True, I had to face a stringent interview by Tom Paulin, who was even then rehearsing his acerbic Late Review style, but A-levels were not the only measure of my worth.

Indeed it used to be the truism of many a university lecturer that an A grade at A-level was not a necessary indicator of future academic success, a complaint that is being echoed even now. Part of the basis for this assertion lies in the nature of A-level exams. The tricks learnt to do well at this level do not always serve you well in your degree, or even in later life. To succeed at A-level is to play it safe. This is not to question the hard work or even the ability of candidates who do well today; it is more to question the kind of education that the system is encouraging.

Part of the problem with A-levels is the way in which they assess performance. The point is subtle but important. The reward of regurgitating the facts is consistent; the reward of flair and originality more intermittent.

Training pupils to do well can mean encouraging them to avoid taking risks. It can mean cramming them with answers instead of encouraging them to ask questions. It can mean ruling out all areas of the curriculum that are not present in the final exam. Most teachers attempt to resist these temptations. Yet it seems a perverse system that places pressure on schools to teach in a way that is potentially counterproductive to pupils' general educational well-being.

Such an observation is not new. Matthew Arnold, poet, critic and schools inspector, pointed out the dangers of high stakes testing more than a century ago. He believed: "It tends to make instruction mechanical [because it] must inevitably concentrate the teacher's attention on producing this minimum [results] and not simply on the good instruction of the school. The danger to be guarded against is the mistake of assuming these two - the producing of the minimum successfully and the good instruction of the school- as if they were identical." In other words, teaching to the test is not the same as educating the pupil.

This is not an argument against assessment, or even testing; it is simply to ask whether the so-called "gold standard" is hindering us from achieving the kind of education we need; whether a different form of assessment might not better serve both the economic and the creative life of the country.

The other shortcoming of A-levels has been well rehearsed - that its scope is too narrow. Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is on record as saying that he favours a system more like the French baccalaureate. This has two advantages. The first is that the spread of subjects is far greater and so avoids early specialisation; the second is that you either pass or fail. Even the Scottish Highers have greater breadth than the English A-level. His words, however, went unheeded during the Dearing review of post-16 education.

The notion of breadth was replaced by a bureaucratic system of measuring core skills including numeracy, communication and IT. A-levels themselves remained virtually untouched. Labour also appears to have backed away from an radical overhaul of the system. No one, it seems, dares tamper with the "gold standard".

But reappraise it we must. The education market is not the only arena in which schools need to compete. In the global economy we need a well educated, flexible work force. We cannot afford to allow cramming to replace learning. They are not the same. To ensure success we need to find a system of assessment that encourages both breadth and creativity. When A-levels were not the be all and end all of the system, when schools felt under less pressure to conform to its constraints, the narrowness of A-levels did not matter. If they are to be made the sole indicator of an individual and a school's worth, then they must change.

The author is lecturer in education at King's College, London

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