Sunday, August 20, 2006

The government must act now for next year's A Levels

Any comment about A levels should start by congratulating all those students who have just had their A level results on their hard work.

Regardless of what one thinks about the system, getting through the exams does take a lot of effort, and getting an A grade does not happen without both ability and hard work. Any comments we make about the system should not be presented in a way which belittles what this year's students have done to earn the grades they have just been awarded. They deserve to be allowed to feel proud of their achievements.

Nevertheless, failure by the government to act now so that improvements to the system can be made in good time for next year would be to betray next year's students, betray universities, and betray employers.

There is a lot of debate about whether the increasing rates of passes and of high grades represents an improvement of performance or a drop in the difficulty of the exam, but that isn't actually the most important issue. The key point is that any exam in which around 25% of candidates are awarded the highest possible mark is not adequate for the purpose of distinguishing those students who are merely good or very good from the very brightest candidates.

This year the number of students with straight A grades at A level exceeded the total number of University places on offer at Cambridge, Oxford and the next two or three Universities, such as my old University, Bristol, put together. So how can the Universities possibly find an objective and fair way to decide who to admit?

We all know exactly what an impossible situation the top Universities are in. Every time they turn away a working class student with straight A grades some troublemaking populist idiot of a politician may do a Gordon Brown and accuse the University concerned of bias and snobbery. Every time they turn down an ethnic minority student with straight A grades they risk accusations of racism. Every time they turn down a student from the independent sector with straight A grades they will be accused of inverted snobbery and politically correct bias.

And because the exam system is failing to provide an objective way to assess who is brilliant, who is very bright, and who is merely highly competent, there is no way that Universities can make those decisions which is clearly fair.

The simplest way to put this right which has the smallest number of things which can go wrong with it is to introduce an "A*" grade which is limited to those students whose performance is not merely good but clearly outstanding with respect to the majority of their contemporaries. A similar "A*" exists at lower levels of the system. One possibility would be to award an A* to either the top 5% of those who took the exam or the top 25% of those who get an A grade, whichever is fewer. However, I am less concerned about exactly how it is done than by the urgent need to provide an objective assessment of who are the most able students.

The idea of an "A*" grade has been discussed in a number of places this week and clearly has considerable support. Sadly there are some people in education who have opposed the idea on the basis that this might impose more stress on students. Well, any change will always impose some stress, but in my opinion introducing an A* will cause an awful lot less than is caused in the present situation because nobody knows where they stand.

As I mentioned above, the question of whether standards are going up or down is not the most important question, but I do have a comment on it. This debate has been going on for a long time, and when I was chairman of the East of England region of the Conservative National Education Society, I orgaised a debate with a panel consisting of a recently retired secondary school teacher, a Univerity Admissions tutor, and the head of a substantial business which recruited a lot of new people each year. Interestingly all three of them had the same opinion, which was that the overall standards of attainment amongst people leaving school was neither dramatically rising nor collapsing.

All three speakers were of the opinion that on average students were getting better at some things, which included both IT skills and the ability to pass examinations, and worse at others, particularly some things that were prized in the past but regarded as less important now such as spelling and rote learning. All of them felt that the general quality and attainment of the young people they were seeing come through the system was pretty much the same as it has always been.

The debate about whether standards are rising, falling or stable will run and run, but we cannot allow the debate about whether A levels should have an A* grade to do the same. It needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Next year's students cannot afford more dithering.

If the government announces now that they are introducing an A* grade from next summer, and starts consultations with exam boards, schools, Universities, and employers on the details, there is time to consider how to get this relatively simple change ready for summer 2007. But if they do not start the process quickly we will end up with another half-cock change which is not properly thought through, just like the last set of changes to A levels. Or we will end up not doing anything in time for 2007. That would be a disgrace.

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