15 August 2019

The problem with A-levels


And so the cycle of the seasons brings us once again to the annual rite of picking over A-level results day. As ever, there are complaints and concerns, some new, some not so new. This year there’s the decline in the number of English candidates, the low percentage needed to get a good grade in Maths A-level, the perennial concern about the inconsistency of marking and grading in humanities, and the re-emergence of the idea that university application should take place after the publication of results rather than before. And so it goes on.

A-levels are a strange and wondrous paradox. On the one hand, they are constantly described as the unchanging and unchangeable Gold Standard. Indeed, in their current and most recent form, they do resemble the A-levels of forty years ago: three subjects for almost everyone, terminal exams at the end of two years study and that’s your lot.

On the other hand, in this century (and even before) they have had to weather the churn of change. For years there has been grade inflation and the dumbing down of content. Then Curriculum 2000 was invented to make A-level study broader and more accessible to enable more students to gain access to university. So in came AS-levels, exams twice a year in both years of the Sixth Form, modules and retakes. Then there was the growing realisation that the Gold Standard might have been devalued after all, and so in came the A* grade and the Extended Project Qualification to encourage broader independent research. And, finally, there was the return to the glorious past of three subjects only, tougher content, terminal exams, and no second chances, driven by Messrs Gove and Cummings, whose strategy will inform the exam results that emerge today.

Another, more worrying trend has emerged in recent years. Although A-levels were invented by universities as the criterion of entry, there has been a rapid, massive, and deeply damaging rise in unconditional offers. In 2019, 38% of all offers made through UCAS took this form, whereas five or six years ago such offers barely existed. This explosive growth merely reflects the need, if not desperation, for universities to fill their spaces. So, in too many cases A-level performance has become less significant than the predicted grades which schools put onto UCAS forms. As a former Head, I have put in those grades a thousand times and I know it’s a nonsense.

Perhaps much of this is inevitable in a school and exam system that is government directed and government patrolled, not least when the DfE reception area is hardly big enough to contain all the portraits of the Secretaries for Education.

However, there exists within A-levels a much more fundamental flaw that has been afflicting our education, and so our society, for decades. It even goes back as far as the great schism between science and the humanities identified by CP Snow exactly sixty years ago.

David Willetts put it well in A University Education: English universities have a particularly powerful influence over what is taught and how in schools…. Our secondary schools do not aim for the breadth of knowledge which you need to be an effective well-educated citizen. Their purpose is success in the competition for university entry’.

The narrow and early specialisation caused by A-levels, particularly the newly restored norm of three subjects, is a substantial contributor to some of the fundamental problems in the British system: the decline (almost extinction) of modern languages; the fall in numbers studying English or creative subjects; the gender gap in STEM subjects; and students making the wrong call too soon. Only this week, a letter to The Times lamented the lack of scientific education in Parliament, another product of the current system.

‘With the exception of the Secretary of State for International Development, who has a degree in applied physics, the cabinet is almost all social scientists. Even the minister for science is a historian. In 2017 only 9% of candidates standing for election had a degree in a STEM subject. In an increasingly technological world it is essential we have more leaders with a scientific understanding to develop policies to secure our long-term future’.

The last sentence points to an even bigger issue. The A-level system is providing an education which runs entirely contrary to all wisdom about the kind of broad education that the world of the future will need. The nature of that world may be uncertain, but it is agreed that it will require skills of inter-disciplinary thinking, creativity, teamwork and communication. Voices saying this can be heard echoing everywhere: David Willetts makes that call as do Andreas Schleicher, the senior educational figure at the OECD and Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now. The President of the Royal Society, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, thinks so, too:

‘The UK risks falling behind its global competitors as a result of maintaining a narrow, outdated model of post-16 education… Our narrow education system, which encourages early specialisation, is no longer fit for purpose in an increasingly interdisciplinary world. Many countries have moved, or are moving, towards a broader and more diverse curriculum in order to equip the next generation with a skill set they will need’.

Only last week, the Institute of Engineering and Technology said something very similar:

‘The UK urgently needs to attract more young people into engineering. That means engaging them all the way from primary school to adulthood…STEM knowledge is crucial but our young engineers will also need a broader range of skills that they can gain from the arts, humanities and other subjects. Giving children access to a broad and balanced curriculum will help create a stronger engineering workforce in the future’.

Perhaps the Gold Standard of A-levels might, over time, respond to this changing world. Perhaps. There is already an alternative, the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma, taught in 140 countries and 3000 schools, of which over 100 are in the UK. The IB Diploma not only allows, but demands breadth: each student is required to study 6 subjects of which Maths, his/her own native language, a foreign language, a science subject and a humanities subject are compulsory. No one can seriously doubt the quality of IB as a 16+ qualification and, once upon a time, Tony Blair was an advocate of such provision. However, in recent times, funding cuts have put the state sector under considerable pressure and there’s little bandwidth for significant change so that may not be the answer, even if it continues to prosper in many independent schools.

However, in the meantime, there are signs that students and tertiary institutions are charting a new course, despite the state’s slowness to map it. This week Unifrog, an organisation which provides online university guidance, published a survey about student aspirations. It showed that the most popular subject choice for next year’s university applications is Liberal Arts, a subject that has never even been in the top 10 before.

As for the institutions, Liberal Arts courses are springing up in many universities and even new types of university are coming into being. Professor Carl Gombrich, having set up the  Liberal Arts and Sciences course at University College London in 2010, has now joined the London Interdisciplinary School, a new university opening in 2020 that prepares students to tackle the most important and complex global problems. King’s College, London is also working with an American and Australian university to create The Engineering and Design Institute, which will be focussed on a fresh approach to engineering, including admitting students who don’t always have the traditional maths and physics profile.

The cycle of the seasons may still come round, but the times they are a’changin and perhaps there will be a time when the Gold Standard in education, like the Gold Standard in currency, will be a thing of the past.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

John Claughton is a former Chief Master of King Edward's School and Senior Counsel for Graham Pelton Consulting