Leading Article: Abolish A-levels

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The Independent Online
MID-AUGUST brings a familiar sound. Not just the squeals and sobs from 18- year-olds as they open A-level results but the rumble of carping nonsense from Sir Rhodes Boyson, the backbench MP and former Tory education minister. Once more, the pass rates are up and, once more, Sir Rhodes cries foul. 'I suspect there has been a devaluing of standards,' he said last week. 'The only way we will know is to go back 25 years and look at the scripts written by candidates.' But as Sir Rhodes should know - he is, after all, a former headmaster - that would tell us nothing. A-level syllabuses and papers have changed out of recognition in the past quarter-century. They ought, nevertheless, to have changed more. The real scandal - and one for which Sir Rhodes and his colleagues in the Tory undergrowth are responsible - is that A- level and its standards are still alive, that our brightest young people take an examination designed for another era.

There is every reason to believe that standards have risen. A decade ago, the pass rate was virtually unchanged, at just less than 70 per cent, from when A-levels began in 1951. Since then, four developments have led to a pass rate of more than 80 per cent. First, hundreds of sixth-form and tertiary colleges have opened, offering students better tuition and a wider range of subjects than was ever possible in small comprehensive school sixth-forms. Second, schools and colleges have been obliged to publish their exam results, broken down by subject. Third, the job market for people with anything less than an A-level pass has all but collapsed. Fourth, the huge expansion in university places - the proportion of young people entering higher education has doubled to nearly 30 per cent since the early 1980s - has provided incentives to do well at A-level.

The Tories can take some credit for this. They can take no credit whatever for their stubborn commitment to the A-level 'gold standard', about as helpful to education as Churchill's commitment to the gold standard was to the inter-war British economy. The present crisis over university places, with many well-qualified applicants being turned away, is the direct result of their policies. The new university entrants have flooded into the arts and social sciences. In an attempt to steer more of them to the sciences, ministers have reduced funding for arts courses. It will not work for the simple reason that thousands of young people irrevocably cut themselves off from the sciences when they start A-levels. If you cannot get an arts place with B grades in English, history and French it is not much use to be told that engineering departments are welcoming people with Ds and Es. Engineering departments usually want maths and physics passes; true, some universities offer 'conversion' courses for arts sixth-formers but that can be an answer only for a minority. 'Be flexible,' command ministers and university spokespeople. They do not seem to understand that the A-level system encourages, if not requires, young people to spend two years being inflexible in their concentration on arts or sciences.

If ministers want flexible students, they should create a flexible system. The country not only has too many arts graduates and too few science and engineering graduates. It also lacks numerate artists and literate scientists. The time to lay the foundations for such people is in the sixth-form. This entails abolishing A-levels - originally created as a giant entry hurdle to elite universities which admitted barely 3 per cent of the population - and replacing them with a five-subject curriculum, requiring continued study of both arts and sciences, similar to that on the Continent. A government committee proposed this solution five years ago. Margaret Thatcher, cheered on by her backbenchers, turned it down. John Major, if he is serious about rebuilding British science and technology, should reverse her decision. The only losers would be the likes of Sir Rhodes Boyson, deprived of their annual sound bites about standards that no longer matter.

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