The Great Debate UK

Are A-levels what they used to be?


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.