John Dunford: We should celebrate these success stories

Students should be given credit for thinking about their long-term futures

Share

With the pass rate rising and the proportion of top grades increasing, the doomsayers emerge with the predictability of the first cuckoo in spring to complain that A-level standards are falling. Meanwhile, the 240,000 young people taking the examinations this year exhibit the range of emotions that any competitive exercise produces, but tinged with annoyance at the way in which the result of their two years' work is demeaned by some.

With A-levels tied in so closely to the university admissions process, important issues about higher education also surface at this time of year. The new card in the pack is student fees, threatening to burden bright youngsters with huge debts in their early twenties, and affecting not only their choice of course and university, but their whole attitude to higher education. As well as taking more vocationally oriented subjects at A-level, teenagers are looking more carefully at the employability record of graduates from the courses that they are considering.

With one eye on their financial situation and another on their job prospects, the university entrants of 2006 will become much more discriminating consumers of higher education than previous generations and universities will have to improve their teaching and pastoral care if they are to avoid some potentially difficult lawsuits.

With large fees looming over them, students this year will not just be seeking a place, but making absolutely sure they get on to the right course. A wrong choice could be very costly, both financially and in career terms.

Some may wonder if young people should be thinking so early of their employment prospects, but in fact they should be given credit for thinking more clearly about their long-term futures. The 18-year-olds of 2006 have worked incredibly hard for their results - much harder than previous generations. Contrary to some media perceptions, A-levels remain a difficult test, with less than 4 per cent of the 650,000 young people in the age group achieving three grade-A passes.

For bright 17-year-olds, the pressure is greater, with the results of all six unit examinations in each A-level subject being made available to university admissions tutors next year. Together with the forthcoming extended essay project (a compulsory mini-thesis designed to stretch A-level students' creative and thinking skills), this should give universities enough information on which to discriminate between the best candidates without introducing an A* grade, which would make grade A look and feel like second best.

The increases for chemistry and modern foreign languages A-level entries are welcome, but the fall in physics numbers suggests that there are problems still to be solved in the science curriculum. Although the substantial increase in the numbers taking mathematics A-level this year is a good example of what can happen when the Government establishes a committee of experts and acts on their recommendations.

It is regrettable that Charles Clarke's successor, Ruth Kelly, did not similarly follow the advice of her experts when she responded to Sir Mike Tomlinson's report on 14 to 19 qualifications by leaving GCSE and A-level out of the diploma system being created for vocational qualifications. For all their success this week, 18-year-olds study a narrower curriculum than their counterparts in other countries.

The proposed extended project will help broaden their studies, but the review of 14 to 19 planned for 2008 will need to bring A-levels into the diploma if we are to avoid a drift, which is already starting, towards the International Baccalaureate.

The IB is a challenging option, with a wider range of subjects studied and less freedom of choice of subjects. But it is not suitable for all 16-year-olds, particularly at the lower end of the A-level ability spectrum. The IB is costly too, especially if schools are also offering a wide range of A-levels and vocational courses. It is most likely to be adopted by independent and selective schools, with the accompanying danger of creating a two-tier system post-16. The Welsh have shown the way with their own baccalaureate. England is in danger of falling behind.

A-levels remain a highly credible qualification and the results are of life-changing significance for the students who take them. They are significant for the nation, and the Government, while maintaining public confidence in the existing system, needs to think how they might be part of a broader system after 2008. But for today, let us concentrate on celebrating the very real achievements of so many young people.

john.dunford@ascl.org.uk

The writer is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Network Engineer

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Setup, configure, troubleshoot,...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Consultant - Financial Services - OTE £65,000

£15000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Loan Underwriter

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Collections Agent

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: the SNP’s ‘fundamental problem’, says Corbyn, is that too many people support it

John Rentoul
An investor looks at an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai  

China has exposed the fatal flaws in our liberal economic order

Ann Pettifor
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future