Sunday, August 18, 2019

The problem with A levels - a former headmaster writes

There is a thought-provoking piece on the CAPX website about the issues with A levels and the focus of higher education in Britain by former Headmaster John Claughton.

Among his concerns are the "rapid, massive, and deeply damaging rise in unconditional offers" and more generally, that the UK post-16 education system is very highly specialised to an extent which he argues is too great.

Claughton writes:

"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."

I heard a speaker from the new regulator interviewed on the radio on this subject while, topically, I was actually driving my daughter to her former school for the last time to pick up her A-level results.

She argued that there is sometimes a case for unconditional offers but there are concerns at the number, on the proportion based on predicted grades rather than those already achieved, and particularly at the way "conditional unconditional offers" are used to get students to go to universities which might otherwise not have been their first choice.

Yes, I know that "conditional unconditional offer" is a tautology, but it refers to a real and very common situation where a university tells an applicant that they can have an unconditional offer provided they accept it quickly and make the university concerned their first choice.

This is an abuse of the system and if it continues some kind of cap on unconditional offers based on predicted grades and a ban on this kind of "conditional unconditional offers" may be necessary.

Claughton also expresses the concern that at a time when in his opinion there is more demand for joint honours and a greater degree of ability to work across different specialties, the level of specialism in UK universities

"is no longer fit for purpose in an increasingly interdisciplinary world."

I'm not as convinced that this accurately describes what's going on in all UK Universities - it certainly doesn't fit the Higher Education establishment which which I am most familiar, the University of Bristol, on which I have served on University Court for a great many years.

However, he does describe a potential problem which needs to be avoided and hence I would recommend his article, which you can read here.

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