Some A-levels should be more equal than others

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The Independent Culture
MY CONGRATULATIONS to all those who did well in their A-levels, and my commiserations to those who did less well. I hope that they do better next time if they decide to resit. But at this time of celebrations and tears, I believe we should take a fresh look at the A-levels that have served this country so well over half a century, together with a re-examination of many other aspects of higher education.

Fifty years ago only 5 per cent of the age group sat A-levels. Now we are moving towards a situation where half of these young people will be sitting some form of A-level. This means that the examinations will have to be broader, and yet we have to keep up standards on all sides.

The solution is surely to introduce two types of A-level. The first will be for those who hope to go to university, the second for those who are intending to go out to work at age 18. There is a clear difference between those who want to go on learning and those who want to start earning.

At this stage I should mention also that I would like to see a return to the apprenticeship system that has almost disappeared from this country. In Germany and other parts of Europe the apprenticeship system still exists; it is something that we should look at again. The journeyman looking after his apprenticeship can be a sort of second father and in a country such as Britain, where so many fathers are not in the home, the apprentice father can assist his adoptee. This would be helpful in the many broken homes we have in the UK. Thus could the journeyman as father substitute be a modern variation of an old theme.

We should look additionally at the module system whereby pupils have their examination every month or two months. This is developing very quickly, and now 50 per cent of students work with modules. Such an "examination" is totally different from pupils having to remember over two years, and to my mind the A-level certificate should say whether this is a module A-level or whether it is gained at the end of a two-year course purely by examination. There is all the difference in the world between having to remember for four weeks, and a test after two years.

With more sixth-formers staying on from the lower-ability group we shall have to assess carefully how examinations fit them and what employers make of these examinations. There is a risk to the integrity of the A- levels - the more pupils of different abilities sit the examinations, the more we must ensure that the currency is not destroyed. As many more pupils of lower ability stay at school for A-levels it is important that the standards of marking should be carefully checked, to ensure that the certificate has some meaning for the pupil and to his employer.

I am very shocked that we now have a 20 per cent drop-out rate in university courses. Many leave in their first year. We have always been good in this country at keeping up standards and looking after pupils. This 20 per cent drop-out rate represents a terrible waste of talent, and is an insult to those who were put on unsuitable courses. The high failure rate in our universities is damaging to the whole educational system and goes against the British system of nurturing each pupil.

With the elevation of almost all our education institutions into universities, there is a threat of a decline in standards that could be damaging to the country.

What is needed is a clear pecking- order of universities to make sure that we in Britain can still have a number of universities in the premier league.

I personally would give the London School of Economics, Imperial College, and Oxford and Cambridge Universities, a "world class" status, seen and financed as such for the good of both the country, and learning. In an era of devolution the Scots should asked to nominate similar centres.

There could then be something like another 12 universities that should be funded not as liberally as the original four, but more generously than the generality of colleges. We would then have something like 100 other universities that were funded at a lower level. There is no way that we in Britain can fund more than 100 universities at "world class" level.

As for the funding of higher education, this should be done on a sophisticated loan system, again with special scholarships for the most able scholars. It is very important that the people who go to university should be the people who do stand to gain from the experience. Only under such a system will we be able to preserve the best of our tradition of learning in our universities.

To improve education, the status of the teacher must be raised. It is now in Britain a depressed field. I was proud to be a teacher, and as a teacher and a head was given, by the government and the local authorities, much freedom in the way I ran my class and my school. We do not want too much government interference inside the classroom. Indeed, in recent years teachers have felt that their professionalism was being challenged by governments who have been taking over every part of the curriculum.

I have always thought that more could be done in schools after A- and O-level examinations. I would like to see this period of schooling used for the advancement of the English language by reintroducing the kind of grammar lessons that have gone out of favour in recent years. We should look after our language in both its written and its oral forms.

I think we are at a turning-point in education in Britain. The educational scene is now totally different from what it was 20 or even 10 years ago. It is time it was properly examined, and we really need a new Robbins report. Let us remember that when Professor Robbins reported to the then Conservative government in 1962, he envisaged a revolution in higher education. Similar breadth of vision and bold thinking are needed today.

By all means let young people make their own decisions, though there should still be such a thing as a national policy. A new Robbins report should assess the past and the future to make sure not only that our national education system fulfils the needs of this country, but that all pupils - of whatever ability - are properly catered for. Too many higher education decisions have been made hurriedly over recent years without having been talked through. Education is the future of Britain, but it must be the education that is right for the end of this century.

Sir Rhodes Boyson is a former headmaster and minister for education

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