Bethan Marshall: We are confusing the purpose of A-level exams

Our failure to uncouple what is a graduation assessment from a university exam is very damaging

So Cambridge medical school is going to have to set an entrance test to sort the four-grade-A wheat from the four- grade-A chaff. I have to confess that my heart does not bleed for them. What a dreadful dilemma: having to choose from such a wealth of talent. Indeed I would not care at all were it not for the fact that the concerns of a rarefied few university departments completely dominate the needs of the overwhelming majority of pupils. The tail of a chihuahua is wagging a dog the size of a brontosaurus.

The reason this can happen is because A-levels are the gatekeepers, not of excellence or quality of learning, but of university entrance. And the annual hand wringing that attends the publication of the results never really questions this basic function of the examination system.

That is not to say that the discussion that arises every August is not worth having. We should be concerned if the selection procedure appears to be systematically disadvantaging those in the state sector. Similarly, the pressure on pupils to achieve very high grades is immense. The demand, for example, that a candidate achieve perfection across a range of subjects may well be discouraging some teenagers from taking French or German, if the law department to which they have applied wants three grade As, even if their perception about the relative ease of some subjects is ill founded. Moreover, the introduction of AS-level has added considerably to the exam burden.

The link between A-levels and university also provokes less worthwhile discussions - not least the standards debate. If results are going up, certain pundits assume this can have nothing to do with good teaching, hard work and the need to attain ever higher grades precisely because the grades are going up. It must be because the exams are getting easier. Their point of view becomes the default position against which everyone must justify their opinion.

So when David Milliband, robustly defended the standards at A-level he still needed to point to the new extension exams that have been introduced to stretch the ablest candidates. These exams allow Warwick maths department, for example, to ask for three grade As and top mark on the extension paper. Not content with such finessing, some were suggesting last week that we publish the marks instead of the grades: 82 per cent and you are in, 81 per cent and you are out.

Yet our failure to uncouple what is in effect the graduation assessment of secondary schooling from a university entrance exam damages our whole education system. To begin with it remorselessly reinforces the notion that post-16 learning is really about getting into university even though this still applies to less than half the school population. And with this assumption comes the attendant problem that post-16 work has a built-in academic bias.

We do not, for example, publish equivalent lists of vocational achievement. Nor do we agonise about how well these exams serve the needs of those taking them. We do not ask about whether the myriad of competencies pupils are asked to demonstrate in these assessments are appropriate or how these exams are influenced by the need to assert academic credibility to compete with their more privileged neighbours.

Moreover the idea that post-16 education is the preserve of a particular type of student is possibly the biggest single cultural barrier we have as a country to achieving a higher rate of pupils staying on in education. In a predominantly comprehensive system unquestioned selection - and self selection by pupils - is the norm past GCSE. And this in turn will always mean that for too many, 16, not 18, will look like the natural cut-off point for school leaving.

But the link between A-level and university entrance has other structural implications. For, by making these exams the benchmark of success and the end purpose of school education, it reinforces the divide between the state and the independent sector.

Increasingly parents opt out of their local school and pay to get their children into university. They do this on the basis that, in raw terms, private schools get better exam results. To ensure standards and customer satisfaction are maintained, these schools are highly selective and organise their timetables around the demands of A-level first and the needs of the rest of the curriculum second.

State providers who have a much broader remit with a considerably more diverse clientele are ill served by this particular rat race. Their results, however impressive, will never compare.

But what if A-levels weren't a passport to university? Suppose they were simply one strand in a portfolio that reflected all that an individual had achieved at school from work experience to exam success. The curriculum might look a very different beast indeed.

This is not an argument against academic excellence. This is about a particular version of educational achievement finding its proportional place. For far too long the demands of universities have dominated what goes on in school and an unhealthy co-dependence has resulted. It is time for schools to assert their independence.

The author is lecturer in education at King's College, London

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