Why Ruth Kelly must not make A-levels more difficult

Ruth Kelly should not be making A-levels harder, says John Guy, in an open letter to the minister
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The Independent Online

I know there's a lot going on, but one of the issues on your plate is the whole question of making A-levels more difficult. I've got about 2,600 students doing A-levels in my college and I wonder whether I might make a suggestion. You see, I think the answer is really rather simple.

Whenever I hear Dr Geoff Parks, director of admissions at Cambridge University, speaking about A- level reform, he bemoans the apparent inability of young people to think for themselves, even those with grade A passes (and between you and me, I suspect these are the only ones he sees!). He says that they are unable to work their own unguided way through a problem because they have been set only structured questions which lead them, stage by stage, through to the solution.

Although this can be overstated, in many ways he is right - but I could not disagree more with his solution. He suggests that we should return to a three-A-level package. It is almost as though he believes this narrowness will somehow deepen the experience of learning. But is it really adequate or desirable to have such a narrow preparation for a degree at Cambridge? It is hardly an adequate preparation for life in a competitive modern world, even if we throw in an extended project.

We both know that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) is currently approving a series of four module units for all A-levels, two at AS and two at A2. Breaking a syllabus down into manageable chunks, and then assessing it, is a sensible approach to manage learning - it supports the concept of assessment for learning that is fundamental to the personalised approach. This summative assessment has a formative effect and, in my experience, young people work harder and more consistently for modules spread across the two-year period than used to be the case with the linear A-levels which you and I took.

But whilst the modular approach may assist the acquisition of knowledge, it does not enhance the development of coherence across a subject. So obsessed have we become with the new "science of assessment" that every question has to be sub-divided to determine how many marks are available for knowledge, understanding, analysis, synthesis and so on. The examinee, of course, may answer the question using completely different criteria: what is synthesis to the examiner may be remembered knowledge to the student!

But it is this micro-level of question-setting and assessment which contributes to the problem which we all recognise; the QCA, which used to describe itself as the guardian of standards, has some responsibility in the matter. The solution must not be to reduce the number of subjects that bright students study; that really is dumbing down. Nor is it to concentrate on writing a few more difficult questions to stretch the most able in some sort of optional additional time slot for the enthusiast. This would certainly fall prey to charges of elitism - some colleges would prepare for the tests and some academies might not. And that would not get back-benchers on side!

So why not make the fourth and last module of each A-level significantly different from the other three? It should be one which demands a coherent understanding of the whole subject - a truly synoptic paper; the one with more open-ended questions that everybody, teachers, students and end-users, regard as more tricky.

While the reality of good teaching is that it inspires a love of the subject, it also prepares students for the assessment regime. If the assessment is rather uniform and predictable, teachers will prepare students to respond accordingly. But if the assessment demands a problem-solving approach in response to an unstructured question, then teachers will make sure that students are able to respond - they will be trained to do what Geoff Parks wants. And while we are about it, let's reintroduce some choice of questions to enable young people to select questions that appeal to them.

In short, we would make the examination more fit for purpose. The simple truth is that such an approach would be more demanding of all students: we would produce better grade A students for Dr Parks, and better grade C students as well as better grade E students.

John Guy is the principal of Farnborough Sixth Form College, Hampshire