The Big Question: Are A-levels becoming easier?

Click to follow

Why are we asking this question now?

The simple answer is that today is the day that 250,000 candidates will be receiving their A-level results. The longer answer is that the national results - also published this morning - will once again light the flames for national controversy. They are expected to show a rise in the percentage of candidates getting A-grade passes for the 13th time in 14 years (last year's all-time high was 22.8 per cent). This, argue leading universities, makes it impossible for them to distinguish between a plethora of candidates presenting themselves with three straight-A grade passes for popular courses such as law and medicine

Is that the only problem?

No. For some years now both employers and universities have complained about basic standards of literacy and numeracy among successful A-level candidates. There were also concerns that A-levels did not offer a broad enough curriculum for sixth-formers.

And there have also been worries expressed - notably by traditionalists such as Chris Woodhead, also a former chief schools inspector - that exams have become easier. He has been on the airwaves again this month complaining that educational "prizes have become worthless", exam questions less demanding and syllabuses dumbed down "to the point where real intellectual challenge has disappeared". This is rejected by Dr Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, who insists that A-levels are not easier, just different.

What are the alternatives to A-levels then?

The International Baccalaureate is being offered by a growing number of schools in the UK. It is expect that the number will reach 200 next year; last year it was 65. The IB offers a broader curriculum than A-levels with seven areas of compulsory studies - including modern foreign languages and a science. Ucas, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, now gives it a points score which has led to many university admissions tutors preferring it as a qualification to A-level.

University of Cambridge International Examinations, which is linked to the Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society of Arts exam board, is also developing a new exam, called the Cambridge Pre-U, which it says could replace A-levels and would offer more searching questions. It has recently held discussions with independent schools and representatives of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, representing the new breed of flagship secondary schools which have private sponsorship. Many are said to have expressed an interest in switching from A-levels to the new exam.

Could this really supplant A-levels?

The problem with the IB, according to headteachers, is that it would never be suitable for all pupils. It is a much more demanding exam than A-levels and it does not allow for a pupil to specialise, i.e if youngsters knew they wanted a scientific career they could not study maths, further maths, physics and chemistry - as they could under A-levels.

On the Pre-U, state school heads argue, it would lead to a two-tier system favouring independent schools. The exam is not yet recognised by the QCA as a qualification, and so state schools could not get funding to enter their pupils for it.

There is a third option. Former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson's inquiry into exams recommended replacing the current GCSE and A-level system with an overarching diploma covering both academic and vocational qualifications. However, in the run-up to the 2005 general election, Mr Blair rejected this approach - critics claimed he was afraid of being accused by the Conservatives during the campaign of destroying the "gold standard" of education.

So will A-levels remain?

The smart money must be on them staying. The Institute for Public Policy Research, one of Mr Blair's favourite think-tanks, this week published a pamphlet calling for them to be scrapped. It wants the Government to use its pledge to review progress on exams in 2008 to do a U-turn and implement the Tomlinson reforms. The Department for Education and Skills, however, was quick to respond: "A-levels are here to stay."

Will A-levels change then?

There are various plans to improve A-levels. Most controversial is the introduction of an A-star grade - welcomed by leading educationalists such as Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Studies at the University of Buckingham, who believe it is the best way of differentiating between candidates.

However, John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, opposes it - believing it would devalue not only a B-grade pass but an A-grade as well. He says when the A* grade was introduced at GCSE he saw increased stress and more anorexia problems among teenage girls and the A-grade itself became devalued.

An extended essay project as part of the A-level syllabus is to be trialled this year - becoming compulsory from 2008. This is designed to stretch candidates' creative and thinking skills

What would pacify the universities?

From next year the universities will be given module grades (there are six modules for every A-level). Also, they can ask for individual marks - although Smithers believes that would end up with them putting too much weight on whether a student got, say, 78 or 79 marks in their paper. (At least an A* would show which students got more than 90 per cent, he says.)

There are also plans to ask harder questions - thus making it more difficult to get an A-grade or easier to distinguish which candidates warrant an A* grade. The debate is over whether the harder questions should be for all candidates or an add-on to the paper sat by the most talented youngsters.

The disadvantage with the latter, according to Dr Boston, is that it would depend on whether individual schools entered their pupils for the harder paper. This, again, could discriminate in favour of the independent sector.

Should we stick with A-levels?


* They are still internationally recognised, and used in many Commonwealth countries, as the 'gold standard' of education

* They allow students to choose what subjects to take - thus enabling candidates to show expertise in their chosen areas

* Just a few modifications would satisfy universities' complaints that they can no longer discern the brightest talents


* A-levels have failed to address the biggest problem - the low staying-on rate post-16 compared with other Western countries

* Only when academic and vocational qualifications have parity of esteem will we be able to compete commercially with other nations

* A-levels lack breadth - with too many youngsters studying just sciences or only the humanities