Leading article: A-levels may be useful, but they are not that important
Friday 21 August 1998
Yet every year the same questions are asked: are A-levels less valuable than they were? Has their currency been diminished somehow by the large number of people who take them? Is it easier to get an A in a given subject now than it was 10 years ago?
It is impossible to know the truth - education is one of those subjects that everyone has an opinion on, because we've all had first-hand experience. Even educational experts clash over interpretation.
But the question should be: does it matter? All this breast-beating about the same corny old questions takes place largely because the subject is picked up like an old football, and kicked around each year when there is little else going on in the news.
The A-level system, as it stands, is useful for measuring students in relation to each other for the purposes of university intake. This is the main reason for its existence. But, by definition, the point of an education is not purely to pass exams. School and university are also there to equip you for life in the broadest possible terms: to teach you how to learn, tell you about the world, provide a moral framework, afford the opportunity of empathy for those with whom you apparently have nothing in common (other people) and, heavens!, even allow you to start seeking something called "the truth". Esoteric, but maybe those ancient Greeks had a point that still stands after all these centuries.
Exam results are important, of course. We all know this instinctively, because at some point we are all judged by them. But they are a narrow way of gauging a person's ability and certainly not the only, or best, way of doing it. (Though if five subjects instead of three, as in Scottish Highers, were the national norm, this would be less true.) Anyone whose results were disappointing should take heart from the knowledge that many captains of industry, politicians, and even journalists, got rotten A- level results. The key thing - whether you are disappointed or wildly successful - is to see them largely as an indication of ability to pass exams, and not a judgement passed down on your personal worth - certainly not a prophesy about how the rest of your life will turn out. Nothing is set in stone; there is no script.
But why are so many people so preoccupied by "whither A-levels?"? Sure, more good grades are given out now just because education has been vastly expanded and more people take the exams. Things change. And OK, there does seem to be a generation of people, educated during the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, whose spelling and grammar is not quite up to old grammar- school standards. But these things go in cycles. It is often forgotten that the previous expansion of university education after the Second World War also uncovered notable problems in this area.
You can guarantee, though, that if the boot were on the other foot, and a group of experts agreed that A-levels were harder now than in the past, a vocal few would first refuse to believe it, then come up with an explanation that justified the need to raise standards in order to protect the worth of their own qualifications.
The yearly discussion of A-levels, as "benchmarks" and "gold standards", degenerates into an ill-tempered display of nostalgia for barely-remembered youth. Why not devote that energy to rethinking the structure of the teaching profession, or figuring out how to woo middle class kids and their families back to the state sector instead - in fact, do something creative?
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