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Why meddling with A-levels won’t work

23 January 2013

Conservatives will, no doubt, welcome the government’s announcement about A-levels today. Modules will be abolished. We will return to one tough exam at the end of the two years of study. Life will go back to the golden era of the 1970s when the top people got As and Bs and everybody else got a random selection of C-F because they struggled to understand the questions.

It is true that the old system had some merits. It was especially good for selecting the brilliant from the very good. However, in its latter days, for the vast majority of people taking A-levels, the system did not work. The current modular system has many advantages. At the very least, modular exams ensure that those who do not reach the basic competences in the first year of study go back and learn it all again – exactly as would happen in professional exams.

And this is the point. We need variety in our examinations systems. Instead of having one exam structure, dictated by a Secretary of State, we need different kinds of exams that are appropriate for different types of student. We should welcome the fact that sixth-form students can do the IBacc, A-levels, AS-levels, pre-U and that some students have to do separate university entrance exams too. In addition, vocationally-minded students can take a range of other courses.


However, there is a problem. Continual attempts – by government – to promote ‘comparability’ between completely different types of courses have led to the dumbing down of some A-level courses (though the degree of rigour is still substantial) and the injection of spurious academic content into vocational courses. It could also be argued that universities do not do enough to distinguish between different types of A-level qualification when it is clear that some are more rigorous than others. But, more government intervention is never a solution to the problems caused by government intervention.

In fact, early-mid twentieth century British education was characterised by minimal interference from the state when it came to post-16 qualifications. A remarkably successful mix of vocational, professional and A-level qualifications developed to meet the needs of business and universities. The role of government was to ‘fill in the gaps’.

Now that more people are taking post-16 education and more people work in service industries, it makes sense that A-levels have evolved to be able to more effectively grade a wider range of students. It also makes sense that other – still more testing qualifications – have developed.

However, Michael Gove and Liz Truss should be aware that every large-scale government intervention in the schools exam systems has been a failure – whether by Conservative or Labour governments. Governments can no more centrally plan exams successfully than they can centrally plan any other part of the economy. Those two Conservative ministers – admirable in their intentions and many of their actions – should not be copying Ed Balls.

Prof Philip Booth is Editorial Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

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  • Wilhelm


  • s_o_b

    I got a B, a C and a D. With the latter, I understood the questions perfectly. I just hadn’t done enough work! Leaving ancient history aside however, it strikes me that the biggest ‘loss’ in the modern approach is that of a Lower 6th which didn’t culminate in public exams. I think there was a lot to be said for giving 16 & 17 year olds a year to grow up and come to terms with the differing demands of A levels. It seems now that a) kids potentially have public exams at age 14, 15, 16, 17 & 18 which, in my view, is too pressurised and hence counter-productive, and b) don’t have a chance to catch their metaphorical breath after their GCSEs and before they are headlong into AS work.

    Since I’m having a bit of a rant, whatever happened to the concept that education is about more than just passing exams? Where is the opportunity to learn debating or declamation, this history of music or art without having to be a musician or an artist, teamwork through frequent, regular, competitive sport, and the massive life lesson of being whacked across the hands by a yard-long wooden ruler for not paying attention???

  • the baracus

    “…got a random selection of C-F because they struggled to understand the questions”

    If that is the case then why were they doing A levels then?

    It is about time that we saw Further Education and Higher Education as a way of extending the abilities of those whom are suited to academic education, and to encourage people that “cannot understand the questions” to do something they can understand.

    Germany has a very successful Apprenticeship system for those that would benefit from other education methods.

    We need practical skills developed as much as we do academic skills and it is about time the education system reflected this and was not used to massage the unemployment figures.

  • David Lindsay

    What a grandstanding fraud is Michael Gove. He knows perfectly well that there is no Commons majority for bringing back proper A-levels with AS as a qualification in its own right, just as he knew that there was no Commons majority for bringing back O-levels. That never happened. Nor, this side of the first Labour Government since 1979, will this.

    Commercial schools, which are tax-exempt as charities rather than being taxed as the businesses that they are, hardly ever use anything like the export strength IGCSE favoured in Saint Helena and other old outposts, but instead content themselves with fleecing the gullible by being merely adept at getting people through exams that are largely rubbish anyway. In the case of examination boards, the application of “free” market principles to the provision of a public service has proved an unmitigated disaster, including for the business community more widely, raising the question of whether that might also be true elsewhere

    The present structure of A-levels is an inevitable consequence of the replacement of O-levels with GCSEs. Even assuming that there is any remaining need for a qualification at 16 when the school-leaving age is in any case to be raised in the near future, bringing back both O-levels and proper A-levels would therefore involve denouncing Margaret Thatcher. Replacing O-levels with GCSEs was her very worst domestic policy, and that is saying quite, quite something. Untold numbers of us will be filling in the gaps as best we can for the rest of our lives.

    Let Labour alone promise to legislate, both for the restoration of A-levels and AS-levels (do S-levels still exist, by the way?), and for the restoration of the O-levels that it voted to save in the first place. Let Labour alone promise that ultimate legislative reversal of Thatcherism. No one else could, even if they wanted to, which they do not.

    Ed Miliband and Jon Cruddas, over to you.

    • Tom Tom

      Of course not – having taken O-Levels, A-Levels and S-Levels I find the exam papers nowadays have slipped a level with A-Level being CSE and not exactly 1st year ~~~University as once it was. The old Exam Boards seemed fine with a broad selection, but someone wanted to copy ETS Princeton and sell multiple choice modules like SAT, LSAT, GMAT, GSAT and make money. Yet the success of IB shows that Britain will never be taken seriously again when it debases Exams just as it debased its Currency

  • Tom Tom

    Education is to suppress Excellence and to institutionalise the Socialist Republic of Mediocrity, and it as succeeded beyond expectation. Britain is now characterised by abysmal levels of knowledge, poor spelling, poor grammar, and students entering University whose grasp of English is often much worse than that of foreigners – at least that was the conclusion of Bernard Lamb at Imperial College, London in October 2009.

    • Colonel Mustard

      An excellent summary. Plus we have epidemic mawkishness and ritualised blubbering.

    • telemachus

      So what is the response of the hated doctrinaire Gove
      Destroy a little more

  • Rhoda Klapp2

    Find an exam that works in some other country. Don’t mess with it, just adopt it off the shelf. Then our own manipulators can’t mess with it for political ends. Oh, did I mention leave it alone?

    • Tom Tom

      IB works but it shows up the deficiencies of UK education

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