Are A-levels what they used to be?

August 18, 2009

dunfordjohn- John Dunford is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and was formerly head of Durham Johnston Comprehensive School, one of the top-performing non-selective state schools at A-level. The opinions expressed are his own. -

Every August there is a debate in England about whether standards of A-level examinations have declined and whether A-levels are fit for purpose. Years ago, Dr Rhodes Boyson used to be the harbinger of annual doom; in recent years Professor Alan Smithers has invariably produced a report in A-level results week using statistics to “prove” that A-levels are getting easier.

This year Smithers contrasted the International Baccalaureate (IB), which fails 20 to 30 percent of candidates each year, with A-levels, which have a 97 per cent pass rate. The implication was explicit – the IB has maintained its standard by failing people, while A-levels have become easier.

This is, of course, a false comparison. The reason that A-levels now have such a high pass rate is that students take AS examinations at the end of the first year of the two-year course. As a half-way house to gaining a full A-level, the AS acts as a signpost to young people as to the courses they will pass with the highest grades and which they might fail if they continue.

Since 18 year olds who fail their A-levels are worse off than their counterparts who left full-time education at 16 and did a training programme, the AS and the high A-level pass rate are sensible and positive parts of the education system. If there is a strong criticism arising from the Smithers figures, it is that so many young people are allowed to embark on an IB course that they subsequently fail. That helps nobody, least of all the young people themselves.

Two English diseases are particularly prevalent at this time of year – and I am not talking about swine flu.

The first is our habit of talking down success. We should be proud of the improving achievements of our young people and we should celebrate the year-on-year success of schools and colleges in improving A-level scores. Any company with a 27-year record of success to match this would be shouting it from the rooftops – and we would all be buying their shares.

Secondly, there is the long-standing English disease of devaluing the vocational in comparison to the academic. We had a further example this week, with Michael Gove, the Conservative education spokesman, stating that vocational qualifications should not be prized as highly as A-levels in school league tables.

Yet surely the lack of esteem of vocational qualifications in England is one of the reasons why our economy struggles to keep pace with countries such as Germany where vocational qualifications are on a par with academic.

A-levels, say the traditionalists, must be kept as the gold standard academic qualification. Recollection from my economics degree tells me that the gold standard was a tarnished concept.

So let’s accept that all qualifications must change over time, that A-levels should not be the same as they were when they were founded in 1951, and that being different does not mean worse. And let’s celebrate the achievements of our young people this week without tarnishing their performance with the usual backward-looking debate.

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