The myth of the easy A-level

They used to be education's `gold standard', but are they still? Diana Hinds asked six experienced teachers what they think
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The Independent Online
Are A-levels getting easier? Examination boards, as well as most teachers, deny it strenuously, but after last month's pass rate reached a record 84 per cent, the cries of right-wingers and traditionalists that the exams are less rigorous have grown harder to ignore.

This summer, Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education, has shown herself sufficiently concerned to order an inquiry into whether A-level standards have fallen. The Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority is to join schools inspectors in investigating, and they are expected to report by February 1996.

The A-level pass rate in 1990 was 77 per cent, and has been steadily rising ever since. This year the percentage of students gaining A to E passes increased by 0.9 compared with 1994, and the proportion gaining A to C grades increased by 1.1 per cent.

But the status of the A-level - which has long been regarded by many as the "gold standard" of school qualifications - is coming under increasing scrutiny. Sir Ron Dearing will give it serious consideration in his wide- ranging review of 16-19 qualifications. He is due to report finally next Easter.

Meanwhile, educationists point to a range of factors which they claim have helped to raise standards. For some it is better teaching and better courses, combined with a greater openness on the part of examination boards, who now publish their marking schemes. Some look at demographic changes. Others argue that there is more pressure on young people now to gain good qualifications and that they are better motivated by A-level course work, or the new "modular" A-levels (in which blocks of work are examined at intervals throughout the course).

In an effort to shed more light on the situation, we asked six experienced A-level teachers if they felt A-levels were getting easier, and in what ways the courses and examinations have changed.

Glenn Mascord teaches English at Ordsall Hall School, a comprehensive in Retford, Nottinghamshire, and has taught A-level for 14 years. He is chair of the post-16 committee of the National Association for the Teaching of English.

It has got harder to get A and B grades at English A-level. In the past there was less requirement for students to think for themselves and there was more recall of received opinions. There was often a tricky element in the questions, which you either grasped or you didn't, and there was a lot of poring over past exam papers trying to guess what questions would come up.

The questions have become more friendly and more open now, but they require a more rigorous and sophisticated approach to reading. There is less of the "compare and contrast" type of question, which could be answered in a formulaic way without the candidate really engaging with the text.

"Is Hamlet mad?" is an example of a more open question. There is no one answer to it, but you have to put together a reasoned discussion, or a polemic.

More modern approaches to texts, such as feminist approaches, are evident, and this is part of encouraging students to engage with the ideas in books and link them with their own experiences, their own understanding. Teaching A-level is no longer about promoting a particular reading of the texts, but a multiplicity of readings.

The course work component in A-level has been a crucial element in standards going up. Also, the examination system is a lot more open and teachers are given far more information.

Students now complete the A-level better equipped for life because they have been encouraged to talk rather than just listen, and to think rather than regurgitate.

Jane Wheatley has taught physics A-level for 18 years, and for the past seven has been at Highworth Grammar School, Ashford, Kent. She is chair of the Association for Science Education.

Physics A-level has definitely not got easier. When I started teaching there was a lot more in terms of recall, whereas now there is much more application: they really have to think things through and apply their knowledge rather than just learn things.

Fifteen or so years ago, there were set experiments they had to know. Now they would be more likely to be given a description of the apparatus and be asked to explain particular features of it and do some calculations. They would be required to do something with what they know, to show they really understand what is going on.

My hand-on-heart feeling is that it is still the same candidates getting the top grades. But if anything it has got slightly harder.

Because they now do combined science at GCSE - covering biology, physics and chemistry, but in slightly less depth - physics candidates start A- level from a lower level of experience, and it can be hard to make up the difference.

But in general they are better scientists than in the past. They have more practical skills and they are more capable of independent work. They are taught a series of techniques rather than simply a series of scientific laws and formulae.

Catherine Norris has been teaching German and French for 17 years, the last five at Norwich High School for Girls.

Modern languages has become a more practical and more relevant A-level because of the emphasis now on speaking.

In the Cambridge syllabus, for example, 25 per cent is speaking and 20 per cent listening. Literature is still 20 per cent, but students discuss it and write about it in the foreign language, so they approach it more simply in terms of themes rather than from a literary criticism point of view. They no longer have to translate from English into the foreign language.

More students are attracted to languages than in the past because it is less theoretical. But in a way it has become easier, because there is less emphasis on grammatical accuracy.

The best candidates today have phenomenally wide vocabularies, culled from news broadcasts, modern texts and magazines, and they come out as impressive communicators. Seventeen years ago they would not have been able to communicate like that. I did not learn my listening skills until I was a university student in my year abroad, and would not have been able to listen to the news and understand it when still at school.

So the changes in the A-level are very good in many ways. They have opened up modern languages to many more people, including future lawyers, doctors and scientists, who may wish to work abroad - and you do not have to be able to manipulate the subjunctive in order to do that.

My one worry is that some of those students will go on to teach languages without a sound grasp of the grammar - and there will be real decline of standards in the classroom if this problem is not addressed.

Keith Grimwade has taught A-level geography since 1980. Since 1985 he has been head of geography at Hinchingbrooke School, a comprehensive in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire. He is chair of the Geographical Association's secondary committee.

A-level geography students need to have a greater understanding of the subject to do well than they used to.

Twenty years ago many geography syllabuses still offered a regional option in the exam, when candidates answered questions on, for instance, north-west Europe or Australia. That began to decline from the mid-Seventies on, in favour of a more thematic approach with questions on, for instance, settlement, world development, industry or farming.

So it is now less easy to get by on learning up lists of facts about particular places. Candidates have to understand the subject better to deal with the questions and they have to support their arguments with examples rather than just churning out what they can remember.

Another big change has been London University's "16 to 19 Project", which became a recognised A-level syllabus in the Eighties and is now very popular. The emphasis is on applied, relevant geography, and course work accounts for 35 per cent, including a fieldwork project and a decision-making exercise in which candidates evaluate data.

The course work has not made it easier, but it has raised standards at my school by staggering the examination process and giving students a clear idea of what they are aiming at.

I am getting more geography out of my students now than 20 years ago. We have bigger A-level groups and more high grades and I am convinced this is because they are more motivated.

However now that the limit on course work is 25 per cent, it will be interesting to see if that reduces students' motivation.

Mike Coggles has taught maths A-level since 1970. For the past 16 years he has been at Hartland Comprehensive School in Worksop, Nottinghamshire.

The content of A-level maths courses has changed dramatically over 25 years. I am convinced that today's exam papers are no easier. Some are harder.

New technology has been a big factor in the way maths A-level has changed. The use of calculators has changed the nature of the questions that can be asked and because the number-crunching is easier, the kinds of questions can be more wide-ranging.

Twenty-five years ago questions on topics such as trigonometry and algebra may have been harder than they are now, but there are now new topics on the papers which are more demanding. Topics such as vector algebra, vector geometry and complex numbers would only have been taught at university level 25 years ago, but now they are commonplace in school.

Questions in many modern syllabuses, on pure maths for instance, have become much longer and more wordy, and this requires more understanding.

The very best students today are the equivalent of those 20 years ago, but the nature of the maths has changed.

At my school we have been teaching modular courses for several years, and although I find it harder teaching this way, because I don't have the background, most of the pupils seem to being doing better at it.

In my view there has been a welcome trend towards making the E and D A-level grades a little bit easier to achieve. But the top grades are, rightly, as difficult to achieve as ever.

Carol White taught A-level history for 15 years before becoming a local authority history adviser in 1991. She is now a senior secondary adviser in Humberside, and chair of the Historical Association's secondary committee.

It is no longer possible, as it was in the mid-Seventies, to pass history A-level by being hard-working and memorising a good deal of factual material. You have to be able to apply your knowledge to answer a question.

Research has shown that the skills of analysis, synthesis and using evidence to consider historical problems are far higher-order skills than just learning and regurgitating. So I would argue that history A-level has become more demanding.

Seven years ago there was a big change in the way that history was examined. It used to be the case that you were given marks each time you made a point relevant to the question, and anything irrelevant was ignored. Now it is much tighter: you have to show that you can use your knowledge to answer the question.

In the mid-Seventies there was a real drop-off in the number of A-level history candidates because history was perceived as boring, just lots of facts. That brought about a revolution in history since the early Eighties, and more innovative history syllabuses. When I started teaching I would never have dreamt of introducing ideas from historical debate, but that is now an A-level requirement.

So history is now better taught. Teachers have a better understanding of what is needed and they know a lot more about the way marks are allocated by the examination boards. The teaching and the marking have actually changed a lot more than the questions on the exam papers.