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.