Are A-levels what they used to be?

August 18, 2009

dunfordjohnJohn 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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I am surprised that such tests still exist. They seem an odd way to monitor the success and failure of a student who is of such a young age. It would be far better to have them get a general arts and science education than to waste their time studying for narrowly focused tests.

Posted by Jean Vitriol | Report as abusive

A very easy way to prove that A-levels are not getting easier would be to publish the exam papers for a variety of subjects going back, say, 40 years, online. At present (and I would be very pleased if someone could tell me otherwise) it appears that they simply can’t be accessed. I would be prepared to bet a sizeable amount of money that a French A Level unseen translation from, say, 1977, is much “harder” than one from 2009. Everybody knows what “harder” means, except apparently the statisticians and education policy-makers, who indulge in casuistry and smoke and mirrors devices to persuade us that standards are not dropping, as I am afraid this article seeks to do.

Posted by Matthew | Report as abusive

Well, they were definitely getting easier thirty years ago — I still remember our lecturers at Cambridge wringing their hands because we were the first year’s intake which had NOT covered tensor calculus in the A level syllabus. It’s hard to see any changes made since then which might have stopped that trend, so it seems reasonable to assume, by induction, that it continues to this day.

As for the point about AS levels, it amounts to the proposition: “Allowing schools and pupils to game the system is an effective way to save tax pounds.” Discussion of which is probably a scholarship question in its own right!

Posted by ian Kemmish | Report as abusive

The issue that always get missed is quotas. Put simply when I took A levels only a certain percentage could get As. Now if students reach a set standard they all can. What is the point of an examination system which does not sort out the wheat from the chaff?

My A,B,B,E results are worth nothing in today’s market. Way back when they were Oxbridge material

Posted by David | Report as abusive

I remember when my brother went to Sussex Uni and the students were told that Sussex was now better than Oxbridge because Sussex gave more 1st Class degrees. I remember thinking at the time that it would be more sensible to argue that proposition if they were awarding FEWER firsts.

Posted by davidke | Report as abusive

A-levels became the new GCSEs, degrees replaced A-levels, masters became what the old degrees were, and PhDs became what masters used to be some while ago. I don’t know where we are now, but we must be approaching the confetti stage.

Posted by Frank Millard | Report as abusive

I agree with Mr. Dunford. Older people tends to think that things were harder in their time. It was not true. Only our memory tricked us into thinking that was the case. Do any of those oldies know anything about javascript? Just leave the youngster be. They have it tough enough as it is.

Posted by Phan | Report as abusive