Leading Article : Time to scrap the A-level

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The Independent Online
Perhaps it is the silly season. Perhaps it is the peculiarly English obsession with one of the most elitist exams in the world. But the hue and cry about A-levels has been inescapable. Are they getting easier? Are they fair? Will there be a scramble for university places this year? (Answers: yes and no; up to a point; and no more so than usual.) As the middle classes debate the higher education prospects of their children and tearful sixth-formers are reassured that life does not end when you get a C grade rather than a B, the rest of the nation may be forgiven for wondering what the fuss is about. For the A-level is still an exam for a minority. Only one-third of the age group takes it - in comparison with other countries, an absurdly small proportion. It also consigns an absurdly large proportion of its candidates to the scrap heap - 17 per cent drop out and a further 15 per cent fail. Yet the Government applauds it as a "gold standard" and refuses to change an institution which has been in place for more than 40 years. The truth is that the A-level is the symbol of everything that is wrong with the English education system. Last week's fuss is typical of a preoccupation with educating the elite properly and neglecting most of the rest. England has always scored A grades for educating the top 20 per cent but when it comes to dealing with the bottom 40 per cent of children we score E faltering towards F.

A series of international studies has shown that our sixth-formers compare very well with the rest of the world. They are not the problem. It is further down that scale that we fail to match up. Professor David Reynolds's recent comparison of our performance in mathematics with that of other countries found that the most alarming aspect of our education system was the "long tail" of under-achievers. Last week, a study from the National Foundation for Educational Research said exactly the same about reading. We do badly, it said, not because we use trendy teaching methods but because we do not pay enough attention to the children at the bottom of the heap.

There is no sign that ministers have grasped this. Sir Ron Dearing, its chief adviser on exams, was called in recently to take a look at education post-16. He concluded that vocational qualifications, the poor relations of GCSE and A-level, should be valued as much as academic exams; courses designed to prepare young people for work should have status, as they do in many countries on the Continent. Caterers and hairdressers were important, he said, as well as doctors. Sir Ron, however, failed to provide the means to put his vision into practice. He suggested new diplomas which would include both academic and vocational qualifications but these overarching certificates would not be compulsory and the two pathways would remain. Some would still potter along on vocational courses while others bounded onward and upward on academic ones. This failure was not his fault; before his inquiry began, the Government had decreed that the A-level - the gold standard - would be preserved. Ministers were not prepared, it seems, to risk the fury of Tory backbenchers and the right-wing media.

In a society where academic snobbery is a chronic disease, this will not do. The A-level has to go. Not just because, as everybody but the Government has argued for ages, it is too narrow and involves too few subjects, but mainly because the improvement of education for everyone will never be achieved while the only 18-plus exam which counts is exclusively academic. In its place we need an English version of the baccalaureate which could be achieved by either a vocational or an academic route. Everybody would have to do some mathematics or science and even the most academic would have to take some non-traditional courses, perhaps citizenship or community service. Forget the traditionalists' worry about whether the new exams would be precisely comparable in standard to A-level. They would be different and we should expect to get most young people through them. Work-related qualifications of real status are essential to solve the nation's skills deficit. The changes would be profound but, without them, we shall be ill-equipped to face our competitors in the 21st century.