In defence of A-levels
I’m still digesting the new review on Home Schooling, its methodology and recommendations. There will be more on that on Saturday morning, after I finish building it in to some research I’m doing on the policy of Every Child Matters. One of the methods pursued by the review was to assemble a panel of ‘experts’ in order to discuss issues in Home Schooling; one of the issues I’ll look at is whether or not that is an appropriate method of reaching conclusions. I don’t think it is. Equally I don’t think it was an appropriate method for the latest ‘study’ into A-levels by the Reform group.
Phrases such as ‘hollow preparation’, ‘learn and forget culture’, ‘like sat-nav rather than a map’ (on mathematics), and ‘using somebody else’s mind’ (on English) grace the press releases that accompanied the report. With such prejudicial terms, it occurs to me to wonder whether or not the mind of this particular group was already made up before them embarked on their survey of academics and the syllabus, exam paper and mark scheme of Chemistry, Maths, English and History A-levels from 1951 until the present day. My key objection here is that, as will become apparent, the methods of research here are very open to question.
The academics apparently said that the quality of students has dropped since 1990. There is no explanation as to how this is quantified; there is equally no explanation as to how A-levels themselves are responsible in isolation from other factors. An increase in the number of people at university, an increase in the number of jobs requiring degrees, a sociological change in the composition of university attendees and changes in teaching methods could all play a part. The way the exams are set and marked might not be the be all and end all of the ‘change’; there may be some truth in what is being said, but there’s no discussion as to why this is the key difference.
Moving on to the survey of each mark scheme, exam paper and syllabus, a lot of the report reads like baseless assertion (which, we should remember, academics are as capable of making as the rest of us).
For example, on English and History, the report suggests that, ‘Even subjects that retain much of the superficial content…have seen a hollowing out in the extent to which they are understood and explored.’ This interests me, genuinely. I sat my A-level exams in 2003, post-2000 curriculum, under the AS/A2 system. I teach history under the new system. What evidence is to be adduced in support of the idea that the content which history retains is superficial, and that we have hollowed out the extent to which we can promote understanding and exploration of the subject?
Reading over the remarks by Ian Moxon, on pages 14-15 of the report, the answer is not a whole lot. What strikes me as the key line in Moxon’s section of the report reads as follows. “The study of History has thus become the application of a set of techniques specifically inculcated in stages in schools and systematically assessed at intervals by examination. Everything is specified and everything is determined.” This is true, to an extent. It is readily observable through teaching methods in school, where training pupils to write essays is an exercise in box ticking, from Key Stage 3 to A-level.
Level 5 is grouping causal factors, Level 6 is prioritization of factors, Level 7 is different perspectives and so forth. Basic frameworks such as these allow pupils of lesser ability to achieve. It’s not a fake achievement because elements of individual decision are still involved. Selecting the evidence to write a sustained, reasoned argument is big achievement from the point of view of Western society, for which adult literacy seems an increasing problem. Taking America as an example, by 2003, the NAAL reported that the overall percentage of college students reading at a ‘proficient’ level dropped from 40% to 31%.
This is not about the A-level exams. Exams require reading and synthesizing just as much information now as first year at university, speaking from my own experience. It’s about general reading ability, the desire to watch television or use the internet rather than read for pleasure, something supported by NEA figures that show a 17% decline in literary reading in the twenty years up until 2004. If providing a framework to assist in making up this shortfall enables more people to participate, despite the great pressure not to read, then I’m all for it. It is always within the capacity of brighter students to push themselves and be pushed further than the basic framework, which wouldn’t get them a grade A in any case. This is why A level, as with other exams, has a variable mark rather than a simple pass-fail option.
Additionally, as noted in the report, the number of pupils taking A-level has increased massively. Since 1985, the number of pupils taking A-levels has doubled from around 19% to around 40% of school leavers. Though I haven’t researched this to provide a correlation, I suspect that this means more pupils of much wider social backgrounds sitting the exams – and this reinforces the trend discussed above.
None of the contentions outlined by Ian Moxon prove that students, as a result of the introduction of a framework and a more rigorous schematic for marking exams, are any less capable of transitioning to university. And even if it did, it still doesn’t prove that the framework is what is to blame. The attribution of whatever deficiencies lecturers subjectively perceive about their students to the quality of the A-level exams, or how they are taught or marked, is far from fixed. Of course it is a possibility – no one is denying that – but this report treats it as fact and without good reason.
To apply some of my own subjective views, my own essays for my A-levels did demonstrate flair. I was competitive and enjoyed fluid writing, and enjoyed learning. I was so engrossed by Athenian democracy at the time that I learned the subject so well I could write in-jokes for my essays. My results for each paper were in the 90s (out of 100), if I recall correctly. When I moved to university, my first year was no more rigorous than what I had been taught in the same subject at A-level. For A-level, I had three source books (Thucydides’ history, Plutarch’s Lives and a book on the Athenian Empire) and one course book. I used them all at University.
A-level offered me the scope to, and rewarded me for, taking a deeper and more perceptive interest in the subjects under study than many of my peers. Which is why I got an A and they didn’t. That is how the system is supposed to work – and it does work. Every teacher knows who their stronger students are, and who their weaker students are. The Reform group report reads like it would prefer to exclude weaker students entirely; if one can’t answer a question on Napoleon without a quote (see the Appendices), then obviously one is just not trying hard enough! This ignores the invaluable resource which A-level provides in opening pupils to interests which may diverge from employment but prove much more fulfilling.
If the Reform group is simply advocating a more rigorous standard of teaching, to set the scene for pupils to engage in independent work, then I have no problem with that. For history specifically, if the Reform group is advocating a return to regular source-based questions rather than merely relying upon secondary texts, then I’m all for that. Having an opinion, which can substantiated in fact, and being able to make use of original sources are the building blocks of history. I can’t speak for every history department in the country, but I daresay that many history teachers besides myself agree and act accordingly.
So what, really, are Reform barking about? I don’t really know. Their recommendations include abolishing detailed mark schemes, to allow examiners to use their specialist knowledge to greater effect. Apart from risk of de-standardising the A-level exam, the report acknowledges that actually most exam boards do channel their various papers towards subject specialists as the matter stands. Similarly, the Reform group calls for teachers to be allowed to follow online the marking of individual papers in the name of ‘intellectual integrity’…but this demand comes out of nowhere, as I wasn’t aware and the report does not make clear that the intellectual integrity of A-level marking was being challenged.
Reform also demands that a number of Diplomas be abolished, such as in critical thinking. Instead subjects such as this should be taught in the context of other subjects (why exactly? No explanation is offered). Employers should from thenceforth be in charge of offering ‘functional skills’ training. The mechanisms for this, or how reliable and widespread or effective it would be, are left undiscussed. Foisting the responsibility for all of this on to heads of university departments, and allowing more private initiative in setting up exam boards (so long as they are approved by collectives of the department heads) are also proposals which seem thrown in with hardly a regard for realities.
Where in their busy schedule are university heads of department, or even university teachers for that matter, going to find the time to oversee systems of national examinations and perform quality control exercises related to that?
The clincher is that all of this is based on the assumption that it is the A-level exams that are to blame for the (supposedly) declining state of readiness in which our students turn up to university. That case has not been made.