Have A-levels had their day?

Our exam system is narrow in focus and leaves pupils ill-prepared for the world of work. It's time we explored the alternatives, argues Professor Don Nutbeam

News that the headmistress of one of the country's leading state grammar schools is encouraging pupils to switch from A-levels to the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB) prompts consideration of whether A-levels continue to serve students, universities and prospective employers as well as they did in the past. Nicole Chapman, headmistress of Chelmsford County High School for Girls in Essex, says the IB offers a broader curriculum and is a better preparation for university.

Much of the annual collective national angst about A-levels focuses on a perceived fall in standards, when it could be more productively directed at the overall usefulness of A-levels. Despite recent reforms, the A-level system that has served UK schools and universities for over half a century channels young people into narrow pathways for learning far too early in their education. At the age of 15, the system forces pupils to make significant subject choices in preparation for A-levels and subsequent university entry. This is at an age when most have poorly developed ideas about their educational preferences and job prospects. A good number will abandon a foreign language, and by age 16, many will drop English and/or Maths. By year 11, most will focus on a relatively restricted combination of subjects, to position themselves for a chosen degree programme. None of these forced choices serves universities or prospective employers well.

Recent changes – including the arrival of diplomas and the introduction of a modular structure, applied subjects and the extended project – have gone some way in addressing the perceived narrowness of A-levels, especially for those pupils who will go directly into employment after school.

However, these innovations have added a further element of confusion for students and their parents, who are faced with making choices from an ever expanding smorgasbord of, as yet, untested options.

Universities could positively influence the process, but currently we exacerbate the problem, both by continuing to rely on A-levels as the primary form of assessment for entry, and by offering students an ever increasing number of highly specialised degree programmes. As a result, from the age of 15 young people progressively learn more and more about less and less.

Such a system ultimately serves both students and universities poorly, and is out of step with what many young people say they want from their education.

Surveys among students indicate they are looking for more personalised education through courses that are flexible yet structured, and which develop transferable skills. Employer organisations such as the CBI have emphasised the need for graduates to be "job-ready", with good problem-solving skills, the ability to communicate effectively and to work as a part of a team, as well as the specialised knowledge and technical skills that come from university study. Schools and universities have to prepare students for a future work environment that is not only far more complex than that of their parents and career advisers, but which is evolving much more quickly.

As we enter a period of change in higher education, this would be a good time for the Government to engage with schools, universities and business in a fundamental examination of the long-term viability and effectiveness of the A-level system.

We need a system that is not only suitably rigorous and testing, but which provides the educational breadth and flexibility that will produce a well-educated and adaptable workforce, and well-rounded entrants to the university system.

This is not hard to imagine. The IB diploma is an equivalent alternative to A-levels. Students are required to study across six mandatory academic areas, with three of the subjects studied to a higher level and three to a standard level. This ensures a breadth of experience across the core subject areas, which include experimental sciences, maths, and social studies, as well as a second language. Students also study the theory of knowledge, and are required to complete an extended essay through independent research.

In Australia, the Higher School Certificate (HSC) programme requires students in the final two years of high-school to complete 12 preliminary units of study in year 11 (some of which can be "double" units), and 10 HSC units in year 12.

Universities in the UK have consistently demonstrated their ability to accept home students with the more broadly based IB, and international students with more broadly based school qualifications such as the HSC. There is little evidence to suggest that these students are any less well-equipped for a UK university education, or suffer higher drop-out rates or poorer outcomes compared with students with A-levels. The IB and HSC are not necessarily a quick fix for broadening education in UK schools, but they do provide respected frameworks for education, which can give us confidence that change is feasible.

Universities themselves also have much to consider. Many of their students arrive with undeveloped ideas about their academic strengths and career direction. Yet, those wishing to study across disciplines, and engage in the type of broadly based education that could be offered at a comprehensive university, will often find a range of structural obstacles and disincentives confronting them.

Right now several universities, including my own, the University of Southampton, are examining ways in which we can better cater for these students, by offering a more flexible, customised, educational programme, which will help develop the generic skills and attributes so highly valued by students and employers. No less rigorous and demanding, this programme aspires to add breadth to depth for those who want it.

Change to such fundamental elements in our education system cannot be under- taken lightly or quickly; but now is an ideal time for our new Government, with its fresh perspectives, to engage in a more productive discussion of alternatives.

Professor Don Nutbeam is vice-chancellor of Southampton University