Trevor Fisher: A storm is brewing over effort to reform A-levels

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The Independent Online

The reform of A-level, being attempted for the second time in a decade, raises serious questions. The first attempt, called Curriculum 2000, led to front-page headlines at the start and sustained criticism. The changes broke the A-level into modules and introduced AS exams, but led to complaints about the number of exams students were doing, and the number of A grades they achieved. Top universities complained that the task of identifying truly able students was becoming impossible. Twenty-five per cent of A-level students now achieve at least one A grade, and 10 per cent gain the former gold standard of three A grades. Grade inflation is alleged and complaints about "hard" and "soft" subjects proliferate.

The Government does not concede grade inflation, but accepted that top universities had problems with the plethora of A grades. Module marks and grades have been released to help university admissions tutors to discriminate. The Government further accepted that there were too many exams, ordering exam boards to reduce the number of modules from six to four with "no loss of content".

Problems remain, however, particularly over the proposed A* grade, which will have a pass mark of 90 per cent and is due for first examination in 2010. The Government sees this as an attempt to provide "stretch and challenge" for candidates. It is to be achieved partly by injecting the harder Advanced Extension Award-type questions into exam papers. But the Government does not accept that this shows the A-level has grown easier, nor that there are hard and soft subjects.

Last October, the National Council for Educational Excellence published a report on future educational changes. It recommended that the A* grade should not be used for university admission "for several years" after 2010 and said: "There is no evidence to assess whether the new A star grade can be predicted with accuracy." The Government and Universities UK accepted this recommendation and the University and Colleges Admission Service argues that the reliability with which teachers will be able to predict its achievement is not yet known.

Why is this? True, in the first year of operation, teachers will not have previously taught the new exams and will have no experience on which to predict student performance. This is only a problem, however, for the first academic year. Possibly the authorities fear a repeat of the scandal that hit the A-level reforms of 2002.

That should not occur, however. The Qualification and Curriculum Authority conducted tests on the new exam questions in summer 2007 and 2008 and, while the results have never been published, there has been no indication that the new systems presented problems. The Schools Secretary, Ed Balls, set up a committee into 14-19 exams which, last March, gave the new systems a clean bill of health. It recommended abolishing the tried and tested Advanced Extension Award as no longer required because of the A* coming on line in 2010. The extension award will be abolished after the 2009 exams.

The decision to suspend A* for university admissions for several years casts a shadow over the abolition of the Advanced Extension Award. Moreover, if universities are instructed to use only A grades, how have the problems identified by admissions tutors been addressed? "Stretch and challenge" is universally accepted as necessary, but if A* cannot be relied on to deal with the problems, top universities will continue to set their own exams.

If A* is unreliable, the Government has to initiate a debate on why. The tests of the new questions must be published, and a rigorous debate on "stretch and challenge" carried out – before the new A-level courses begin next autumn. It will not do for the National Council for Educational Excellence to suspend the use of A* for university admission while data is collected over several years. Is A* a flawed qualification? Will the problem of over-examining remain? It is imperative the new systems are proven before the new courses start.

The writer teaches A-level history at Newcastle-under-Lyme College in Staffordshire