Comment: The timetable should rule out elitism

Share
Related Topics
This morning a familiar scene is being played out in sixth-form blocks all over the country. Everywhere, nervous groups of 18- year-olds are waiting at their schools to receive the envelopes that contain their futures. There will be tears of joy and of bitter disappointment. Some students will sink to the floor in relief or despair; others will rush home to spread the good news or to lick their wounds in private. There can be few places in England where such extremes of emotion are being displayed today.

These scenes have barely changed in the 45 years since A-levels were first introduced, but in fact almost everything else about them is different. In 1951, less than five per cent of 18-year-olds took the exams, and one in three failed. Now a third take them and six out of seven pass. In the Fifties about 30,000 people went to university each year; this autumn 290,000 will do so. With so many more people taking these exams, common sense would suggest that the pass rate should have gone down. After all, when only the very brightest took them they must have had a better chance of getting through, one might argue. But common sense is not always right.

At first glance it does appear curious that the pass rates have continued to go up while the staying-on rates have grown, but there is no disputing the figures. In 1968 the A-level pass rate was 65 per cent, while today it has risen to 86 per cent. Not surprisingly, this has led to anguished cries from the traditionalist end of the political spectrum about falling standards. Those who would like to see the education system frozen in its Fifties incarnation argue that we are devaluing our qualifications by allowing more and more people to pass.

To some extent, they are right. Some education academics believe that expansion may have caused a gradual change in examiners' perceptions of who should pass and who should fail. A candidate whose entry appeared only average among a narrow, elite group could appear very good among a much wider range of abilities. Although there has not been any grand conspiracy, the rapid rise in the pass rate - almost two per cent this year - is probably due in part to these incremental pressures.

But before we throw up our hands in horror and call for tighter codes of conduct for examiners, or even demand the nationalisation of the exam boards, we should think carefully about what we want from our examinations system. Ten years ago a policy decision was taken to expand the higher education system so that the proportion of people going to university would be closer to our economic rivals'. There are some die-hard elitists who hanker for the old days when only a select and tiny band trooped off to college, while the rest got on in the university of life. But fortunately they are few: the right decision was to expand the numbers in higher education, not only because it is socially proper for the widest possible range of people to have the opportunity to achieve their full potential, but also because we need a developed workforce. The market for unskilled labour is shrinking, and, without a highly qualified workforce, Britain will not be able to compete. There is no going back.

If we are ready to accept that our education system should aim to widen access rather than exclude all but a tiny proportion from its upper echelons, we must have an exam system to match. A-levels designed for a tiny proportion of students would be completely inappropriate in the 1990s. So, naturally and gradually, they have changed to meet the demands of the modern system.

Apart from the fact that numbers have increased, teaching methods in universities have changed beyond recognition. A-levels have adapted accordingly. In some subjects they have been broken down into modules that are examined separately rather than through a final exam, and as a result they fit more closely to the short-course approach that is used in universities. Even if such changes have allowed A-levels to become marginally easier, is that necessarily such a bad thing? At the moment 17 per cent of those who start a course still drop out, and a further 15 per cent fail. No exam system is working properly if it automatically consigns a third of its candidates to the scrap heap.

But broadening the scope of A-levels is not enough. We need to measure and accredit students' achievements rather than setting up hurdles that only a small proportion can jump.

There are other university entrance exams. Plans to extend special papers for the very brightest pupils are already afoot, and vocational A-levels are already in place in large numbers of schools. Many mature students win places by taking access courses set up for those without conventional qualifications. Instead of trying to hold on to the past, traditionalists should throw their support behind these exams. Efforts are being made to update the A-level points system so that all students' achievements can count towards university entrance. They should be applauded and encouraged (as well as closely scrutinised). Regarding them with automatic suspicion is no help at all.

At the heart of the annual row over A-level standards is a deep-seated elitism which is hard to shake. Even those who publicly support the principle of access for all are less sure in their hearts that they really want it. But the fact is that education is becoming broader and more diverse, and that trend is not going to be reversed. If the examinations system is not allowed to catch up, it will look increasingly like a throwback to the 1950s.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there