David Robertson: We've all failed A-level

The problem isn't so much with the exam itself but in our attitude to it
Click to follow
The Independent Online

But if it is true, if the problem is only that A-levels do not discriminate finely enough for university selection, then it is easily fixed. The argument seems to be that because more people get good grades than there are places, universities need to know more about the actual levels of achievement - very clever students need to be able to get more marks than merely rather clever ones. This has nothing to do with the question of whether A-levels are, or should be, good selection criteria - that is just assumed in the way the argument is cast. All that is being discussed is a technical question of how to mark the scripts.

The muddled thinking on the whole issue is well displayed in one proffered solution - the proposal to include some "harder questions" for the more able to attempt. What is important, surely (for most subjects, anyway), is not the question but the depth, sophistication and learning expected in the answer. In other words, it would be possible to make it harder to get existing grades, or to extend the grade scheme, if teaching could be delivered to make that useful. However, if we can deliver this, it should be done for its own sake, not to help universities select undergraduates.

A-levels do not exist primarily as selection tools for the next stage of formal education - or this should not be their main purpose. After all, we do not design syllabuses from reception class upwards only with an eye to the next stage. Although it used to be rather like that in the days of the 11-plus. The modern equivalent is the unwillingness of many schools to allow people to go on to the sixth form unless they can be predicted to get good grades, to the complete abandonment of the goal of giving students a valuable educational experience in its own right.

Our modern inability to distinguish between educational value and end-stage grade is rife. Oxford colleges have come to regard anyone who gets a lower-second-class degree, let alone a third, as having failed, and as probably having been "an admissions mistake". It is quite ludicrous to suggest that someone who gets an honours degree of any class from an elite university has "failed", or has not benefited from the experience.

In part, the explanation for Oxford's attitude is the same as for the dis- trust of A-levels - nationally, we seem to be incapable of believing that teaching and student effort can improve. The Government claims that there has been no grade inflation at A-level, but that teaching has improved enormously as a result of more resources and better training. I am half-prepared to believe this. I am sure there has been no grade inflation in Oxford, even though thirds and lower seconds have declined enormously - our undergraduates just do work a lot harder than they used to, and we have become more dedicated and efficient teachers. If I am to believe that of my part of the system, I feel obliged to believe something like it about the schools and A-levels.

To return to the main theme - what is the proper relationship between A-level and university selection? In one sense, the answer is none. We could, indeed, dispense entirely with A-level grades and go for something like the Scholastic Aptitude Test that has been heavily campaigned for by groups such as the Sutton Trust. Or we could return to universities setting their own entry tests, as has begun to happen with medicine and law. One way or another, universities will manage to select. Even now, A-level grades are only part of the process - GCSE results, school references, students' self-descriptions all come into it.

Good A-level results are not necessarily a qualification for a place at university. At most, good grades are a minimum requirement. I say at most, because there is probably as much injustice done to those who get less than perfect A-levels but in fact have a high aptitude for degree work as to those who have perfect scores and still do not get the place they want. Universities do have a legitimate interest in A-level, but it is not in the grading per se. The only reason the university sector has any right to hold a view on the A-level is that it can do its own teaching job well only when students have already acquired a certain body of knowledge.

What is absolutely crucial about the A-level is that it be designed as a stimulating and rewarding finale to school education. As more and more people stay on after GCSE - as they so rightly should - it becomes ever more important that those last two years be of value in their own right; and that courses be designed so that the great majority of our schools can teach the whole of a sixth form in a way that benefits every individual in it. There are major national policy implications here, too.

Something must be done to redress the drift away from sciences and "hard" subjects. Currently, commentators do little but bewail students' preference for so-called "soft" subjects rather than, say, maths and modern languages. Even accepting that there are easier and harder subjects, which is by no means obvious and often implies an unjustified intellectual arrogance, bewailing this will not do. Today's students are no lazier, and no more stupid, than those of previous generations, but they are offered media studies and psychology, which older generations were not. The obvious thing to do is to teach maths and German better, and to devise attractive syllabuses. This is the priority, not fiddling with grading schemes to make the A-level a better predictor of undergraduate success. Using A-level grades to determine university entrance may even be counterproductive, frightening people off subjects they might otherwise enjoy for fear of dropping a grade.

The A-level may or may not be the best way of spending the final two years at school - the overwhelming opinion among teachers seems to be that it is no longer a good finale, and a wider diploma should be introduced. If this involves elements of vocational training, so be it - anything that occupies the minds and excites the interest of students can be taught well and rigorously, just as the existing "hard" subjects are, too frequently, taught sloppily and badly. Nor need there be any concern about leaving the better minds unstretched - if those better minds are coupled with initiative and intellectual energy, they will find plenty to stretch themselves in any well-taught and designed syllabus. They do not need to have their university entrance dangling there to motivate them. Indeed, if a student is not capable of self-motivation, I would rather teach a less able person who is.

I care very much about the issue not because I think universities have a special right to pronounce on the matter, but because my daughter is about to start her A-levels.

David Robertson is professor of politics at the University of Oxford and a fellow of St Hugh's College. He is also a governor of the Loughborough Endowed Schools