A-levels may have changed, but that doesn't mean they are less valuable

I was the first person in my family to do A-levels, and relatives would often ask me what was the use of doing philosophy
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The Independent Online

Students who received their A-level results yesterday will, thankfully, have been too intoxicated to have registered the dispiriting accusations of "dumbing down" that were simultaneously recited by rote across the media. This year's cold-water-pourer-in-chief was John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, who complained that students were opting for "easier" subjects like psychology (now the sixth most popular A-level) rather than the good old "tough" subjects like maths.

Other critics seized upon the increase in the pass rate (up 1.1 percentage points since last year, to 95.4 per cent) as evidence that marking is becoming more lenient. They claim this has been happening every year since 1982, when the rate of increase began. These are totally different issues, yet they have become muddled in the public mind. As with the questions surrounding so many public institutions - whether it's the NHS or prisons - a barrage of cynical questions is hurled out by the press, with little reference to facts or research, and nobody bothers to wait for the answers.

Let's look at the question of "soft" subjects first. Mr Dunford says that it is "statistically proven" that an A-level in one of the new subjects is easier than a foreign language A-level. This is a bizarre statement, not backed up by any facts. How can the two be compared? They are qualitatively different things. Appreciation of Eisenstein's films cannot be compared to an ability to speak Russian; the relative ease of one over the other depends on personal aptitude.

There are some conservatives, with Chris Woodhead at their fore, who have fetishised the late-19th century English public school curriculum. They see any alteration to that model - such as the introduction of psychology - as a decline into barbarism; mention film studies and they will spontaneously combust. They forget - or they are too ignorant to know - that not so long ago the subjects at the core of their own beloved curriculum were also seen as frivolous and subject to "what are we coming to?" polemics.

Mr Woodhead sees the study of Shakespeare as sacred, yet the study of the films of Jean-Luc Godard as ridiculous. Yet at the time of Shakespeare, it would have been seen as an act of bizarre triviality to study his plays, which were regarded as mere entertainment. At the time of Jane Austen, the study of novels would have been seen as preposterous. It was only in the 1880s that the novel form became a subject of serious academic consideration. And now that film is coming under serious intellectual consideration, it is subject to the same facile artistic snobbery.

Anyway, A-levels had to change because we have more people staying on to study them than ever before. They cannot all be squeezed into a model designed for Etonians circa 1900, nor should they. Etonians and rich students have the utter confidence that they will find meaningful employment, and therefore the confidence to choose a subject such as classics; other students do not. At the sixth-form college when I studied A-levels six years ago, the new subjects were not being chosen because they were seen as easy but because they had a clear vocational use. As more working-class students sit A-levels, they are opting for subjects such as law that lead on to a comprehensible career path.

I was the first person in my family to do A-levels, and relatives would often ask me, in a bemused tone, what the use of my philosophy A-level was. "You can't get a job with that, son," they'd mutter. There is a huge thirst for clear, intelligent, respected vocational courses that set students on the road to a job; they should not simply prepare them to be plumbers or mechanics (important thought those jobs are), but also lawyers, film-makers and, yes, psychologists.

So the arguments against new subjects can be dispensed with fairly easily. There is, however, another dimension to the controversy, and it is less easily dismissed. Are A-levels becoming easier not because of the new subjects but because the marking of papers is becoming more generous? Peter Wilby, editor of the New Statesman and a veteran education expert, is probably right when he describes this question as "largely inscrutable. You just can't compare exam papers from 30 years ago with today. It doesn't make sense."

He adds, however, that "you must bear in mind that the whole point of introducing new assessment methods like coursework and sitting the exams in modules was to make A-levels easier. It was designed to help people who weren't good at big bang exams." So A-levels have been made easier in that respect, but for good reason. And who would want to turn the clock back now?

This cuts to the core question that lurks behind the furore: what is the point of A-levels? Mr Wilby is clear on this: "A-levels exist as a mechanism for university entrance. That's all they are for in this country."

"So the exam system is simply adapting itself to the growth in university places," he continues. "As far more people go to university, the system has to be able to adjust. You can't have 30 per cent failing, as you did in the early 1980s, because that 30 per cent have to be assessed and sent to university. The A-level system is simply evolving so it can do the job that we ask of it."

The bottom 30 per cent are incorporated into the system by giving them grades C, D and E. Has this therefore created inflation, where the top grades are easier to get? I'm sad to say it, because I know it is horrible to hear for people who have just slogged their guts out to get high grades, but the evidence seems to suggest that this is the case.

The Engineering Council published a report in June 2000. They brought together mathematics, science and engineering teachers from 60 universities. Almost everyone agreed that there had been a "serious decline in students' mastery of basic mathematical skills and level of preparation for maths-based degree courses". If students with an A-grade are arriving at university much less well prepared than students with an A-grade a generation ago, this strongly suggests that the exams have become easier; and universities seem to agree that this is indeed happening.

The solution, I believe, is quite simple. Instead of awarding lettered grades - where anybody who got over 70 per cent receives an A - why not just publish the raw percentage that a student received? This information is already available to teachers (I was told my percentages in all my subjects), and it allows for more subtle differentiation between students. There is then a risk of inflation even in these marks, of course, but a scenario where more than a handful get everything right and achieve 100 per cent is surely very unlikely. The problem of an A-grade being too blunt an indicator for the best universities then evaporates.

Is it really necessary to adopt an end-of-the-world tone every time A-levels results come out, though? Every generation thinks that the next generation down will be the downfall of civilisation, and it never quite happens. Yes, there are some problems in the system to be corrected before next year's; but for today, let's just congratulate everyone - psychologists, historians, scientists - for working hard. Once they have sobered up enough to hear us, that is.