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

Arts and Entertainment
books
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Life and Style
3D printed bump keys can access almost any lock
techSoftware needs photo of lock and not much more
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
peopleAlice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
The Digicub app, for young fans
advertisingNSPCC 'extremely concerned'
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Year 3 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 3 Teacher Required We are curr...

Year 5 Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Year 5 Primary Teaching positionRands...

Nursery Room Leader

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: JOB DESCRIPTION - NURSERY ROOM LEADER...

Nursery Room Leader

Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: JOB DESCRIPTION - NURSERY ROOM LEADER...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution