Conservatives plan 1950s-style overhaul of A-level exams

More emphasis to be placed on final exam to allay concerns over standards
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The Independent Online

A radical overhaul of A-levels aimed at returning them to the days when they were universally acclaimed as the "gold standard" of the examination system was outlined by the Conservative Party yesterday.

In addition, would-be students could soon find themselves sitting US-style university entrance tests to help admissions staff single out the brightest youngsters.

The proposals, which would mark a return to the style of exam taken when A-levels were introduced in the 1950s, were contained in a review led by Sir Richard Sykes, the former vice-chancellor of Imperial College London, and commissioned by the Conservatives.

Michael Gove, the shadow Schools Secretary, welcomed the report, saying that A-levels needed "refixing to the gold standard".

Sir Richard's team concluded that A-levels were no long "fit for purpose" in determining university entrance.

"The usefulness of the system has been eroded by... universities' loss of confidence in it as a certificate of readiness for university-level study," it said.

As a result, it recommended that pupils could in future skip AS-levels – the exam worth half an A-level that is taken by most youngsters at the end of the first year of the sixth-form.

The universal practice of pupils sitting four A-level units for each subject during their course would be scrapped, and examination boards would be free to return to the old system in which students were graded according to their performance in the final exam.

The present rules had increased the time youngsters spent on "narrow test preparation rather than wider learning", and enabled them to boost their grades by repeatedly retaking units.

GCSEs would be radically overhauled, too, and maths and English would be the only compulsory externally assessed exams for 16-year-olds.

Too many schools had been putting pupils in for "easy" options – such as vocational subjects deemed to be worth between two and four GCSEs – to boost their league table rankings.

Sir Richard said the GCSE had been "so devalued nobody had any faith in it any more". In future, schools would cease to be ranked on their A-level point scores and the focus on the percentage of pupils getting five A* to C grade GCSEs would go, too. Instead, they would be ranked according to the universities their students went on to.

The report also called for the adoption of a standard university entrance test to be introduced along the lines of the SATs used in the United States. The IQ-style tests would cover the use of language, mathematics and reasoning skills.

"It has been established that such an examination can indeed add useful information about individuals to that available from A-level results," the report said.

"We believe that the introduction of a UAT [university assessment test] would provide a very helpful way of ranking candidates on a single scale."

Mr Gove said he thought it would be "right" to consult universities on the idea. However, he added that it may not be necessary to distinguish between students through the extra test, provided that the other A-level reforms outlined in the report, such as giving universities a greater role in devising the exam, were successful.

He said of the reforms to league tables: "Destination data, which tells us if students are moving into high-quality apprenticeships, satisfying jobs or good college and university courses, will give parents real-world information about how well schools are doing."

The document also calls on the Conservatives to set up an independent commission to review the national curriculum once every five or 10 years with a view to slimming down the compulsory content.

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