It's been another bad week for A-levels. Yesterday, Cambridge Assessment reported that traditional examinations, including A-levels, are likely to disappear within 10 years, to be replaced with continual assessment.
This came on the back of two reports which raise serious questions about the academic integrity of A- levels. The leading think tank Reform condemned the modular A-level for creating a generation of "satnav students" who are incapable of thinking for themselves; and it was then reported that five out of six university admission tutors no longer believe that A-levels promote creative thinking. Both these reports agree that what was once the gold standard is now a denuded imitation of its former self, providing a poor preparation for university.
How did it get to this? Put simply, in the 1990s governments became obsessed with getting ever increasing numbers into higher education, and in order to do this more students had to get better grades. It was termed "widening participation", but other, less sympathetic observers saw it as a lowering of standards. Examination papers became "more accessible" (or easier), and marking became increasingly "standardised" (or mechanised ). Numbers certainly increased: today, about 40 per cent of school leavers will have sat an A-level, which is double the proportion of the mid-1980s; in 1985 less than 50 per cent of students with A-level passes went on to study at university, but of late this has risen to up to 78 per cent.
And accusations of grade inflation cannot easily be brushed aside: last year we saw the 26th annual increase in pass rates at A-level: 97 per cent of students who take A-levels now pass. Such vertiginous rises would not have been conceivable unless radical changes were made, and made they were, but at huge cost.
But the real cost lies in something infinitely more precious: our children's education. The wonder is that so many achieve so much in spite of what they experience. And it is important to state here that our children – and their teachers – do achieve great things, and that such debates should not detract from this. But all this achievement is done on a thin diet, and so much more is possible if we were radical.
A-levels are only part of a damaged process, and although they are undoubtedly failing in many areas it would be wrong to focus entirely on them: our obsession with examination grades – from Sats, through GCSEs and on to A- levels – has created a culture where everything has to be measured and quantified if it is seen to have value. A-levels have recently changed again, supposedly to "stretch and challenge", but these changes are cosmetic. They need to be overhauled. We need to be radical if we are going to restore integrity to our national qualifications; we have to fix Sats and GCSEs as well as A-levels because if these foundations are not secure then whatever we build in the sixth form will be substandard.
The biggest and best changes are usually the most simple and effective, and we could begin a benign revolution in our schools by doing two things immediately: make our examination system – at every level – independent of government influence, and return trust to our schools. Let the teachers teach, and let the students learn. Many schools in this country are moving from A-level to the International Baccalaureate Organisation's (IBO) Diploma; it is independent and has had zero grade inflation for 40 years. It is also admired around the world, copied by many, has real integrity, and is welcomed by all universities because it offers breadth and depth.
Look closer and you will see that the IBO has a GCSE alternative – the Middle Years Programme (MYP) – which allows teachers to design the courses they want to teach, to stretch children of all abilities. Crucially, its rigorous standards are maintained by the IBO.
Wellington will be the first independent school in this country to offer the MYP as an alternative to GCSEs next year (a decision supported by Oxford and Cambridge universities), and we also offer the Diploma alongside A-level. If more schools were given the freedom to choose what they could offer they would undoubtedly make the same choice.
Let's dump those satnav specifications, make our schools our children's guides, and prepare them for the most exhilarating and challenging journey of their lives. And let's take that first step now.
Anthony Seldon is the head of Wellington College; David James is its head of International Baccalaureate