The Big Question: Have A-levels become too easy, and should there be a harder alternative?

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The Independent Online

Why are we asking this now?

One of Britain's leading universities has just announced it is to introduce its own entrance exam to select the brightest candidates for courses because it believes it can no longer choose them from pure A-level results. Sir Richard Sykes, the rector of Imperial College, London, said many other universities were likely to follow suit as a result of the plethora of candidates now obtaining A grades at A-level. Already some law and medical courses at institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge have their own aptitude tests to supplement A-levels. Imperial is to introduce its tests in 2010.

Does he have a point?

It is true that the percentage of scripts awarded an A-grade pass has steadily risen over the past 25 years to the point where 25.3 per cent of scripts were given a top grade pass last summer. Universities such as Oxford and Cambridge – and Imperial College – regularly turn away candidates with three A-grade passes as a result. There are, however, ways in which universities could distinguish between candidates presenting themselves with the same qualifications – but it would involve a radical change to the admissions system whereby candidates are offered provisional places on the grades they are expected to get.

A more sensible way of dealing with applications, argue some, would be to move the exam forward and offer students places based on their results. Universities could then see whether candidates had just scraped through to an A grade or passed with flying colours. Some universities are also insisting that successful candidates should have obtained A grade passes in each of the six modules of the A-level, in effect getting 18 A-grade passes if they take three A-levels.

With so many A grades, have A-levels become easier?

Whether A-levels have become easier is the $64,000 question to which there has never been a conclusive answer. Traditionalists such as the former chief schools inspector Chris Woodhead would argue that they have become easier and therefore "prizes have become worthless", exam questions less demanding and syllabuses "dumbed down".

Dr Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority – the exams watchdog – armed with exhaustive research into the question, says there is no evidence to suggest they are easier. They are different, he concedes, asking questions which are more relevant to the modern world.

Should there be a tougher alternative?

There are plenty of alternatives to A-levels starting with the International Baccalaureate. Its popularity is growing in both independent and state schools. It offers a broader curriculum than A-levels, including seven areas of compulsory study.

UCAS, the university admissions service, has given the IB a higher point score rating than A-levels – a move which has persuaded many admissions tutors to prefer it as a qualification to A-levels. The Government, however, has cooled on a commitment given by the former Prime Minister Tony Blair before he quit that there should be a school or college in every town offering the IB. Many independent schools are expressing an interest in the Cambridge Pre-U, a new exam devised by University of Cambridge International Examinations – which is linked to the Oxford, Cambridge and Royal Society of Arts exam board. This exam is being described as a more old-fashioned approach to A-levels, where coursework is eschewed and more weight is given to the end- of-term examination.

Of course, the Schools Secretary Ed Balls has said that he believes the Government's flagship Diplomas – to be introduced for the first time in September – may well become the main route to a qualification for all youngsters in the future. To make it more palatable to industry and the universities, he has introduced more academic content – bringing in Diplomas in subjects such as the humanities, science and languages. Whether they are more demanding than A-levels remains to be seen as the first students have yet to take them.

Can A-levels survive?

A-levels themselves are going to change – starting with the syllabus for those who begin their A-level courses in September. Exam boards have been instructed to make questions more open-ended to allow pupils to show off their creative and thinking skills. In future, the examination will include the kind of questions previously reserved for the Advanced Extension Award papers – usually sat by high-flyers who want to go on to universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. Also, a new A* grade is to be introduced for those who score over 90 per cent.

Will these A-level changes work?

Many academics believe these reforms – which also include the option for students to take an extended essay (dissertation) paper – will steal the thunder of the Pre-U exam almost before it is born and make it easier for university admissions staff to weed out the high-flyers for popular courses. A-levels, it is also argued, will survive any threat from the IB, which is more demanding and not suitable for every pupil in a school.

As to any perceived threat from the Diplomas, many believe this new flagship qualification will have a struggle to get off the ground. Already, the Government has had to modify its projections for the numbers expected to take up the Diploma from this September twice – from 50,000, then to 40,000 and now to 20,000.

So A-levels are here to stay then?

It is true to say they are less enthusiastically endorsed by the current regime at the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Tony Blair, in one of his most controversial acts on education policy, refused to endorse a proposal from a government inquiry into exam reform by (yet another) former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson that there should be an overarching Diploma to cover both GCSEs and A-levels and vocational qualifications in the mistaken belief that the proposals would mean an end to A-levels. "A-levels are here to stay" was the Blairite mantra repeated in those days.

It is no longer heard so forcefully but – in the absence of any clear front-runner to replace what has been considered the "gold standard" of the education system for more than 50 years – sages in the academic world argue that it would be a fool who would part with a lot of money to bet on them disappearing from the academic scene after surviving for so long.

So are these exams out of date?

Yes...

* Too many scripts are awarded A-grade passes (25.3 per cent) foruniversities to be able to select the brightest candidates.

* There are tougher exams which will stretch the brighteststudents (International Baccalaureate, Cambridge Pre-U).

* They lack breadth, with too many youngsters studying just sciences or the humanities.

No...

* The reforms to A-levels being introduced in September will make them tougher and highlight the brightest candidates.

* None of its rivals (the IB, diploma and Cambridge Pre-U) have established themselves as firmly in the public consciousness.

* They are still internationally recognised and used in many other countries.

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