Ask the experts: Should A-levels be overhauled?

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Peter Tinniswood, headmaster of Lancing College, answers your questions on A-levels alongside Chris Giles, the FT’s economics editor, and columnist Lucy Kellaway, who were recently forced by the FT to re-sit their exams.

How did our writers do in their A-levels?

Peter Tinniswood (above left)

Headmaster of Lancing College, an independent school in West Sussex. “A-level is now no longer a real discriminator,” he says. “Educationalists, bureaucrats and politicians have interfered to achieve an output that suits their interests. Over prescription in education demeans pupils and staff. No wonder universities are having to consider setting up their own entry tests.”

Read Michael Prowse on why he thinks A-levels should pass into history

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How can grade-inflation be removed from any future A-level type system?
Michael-James Clifton

Peter Tinniswood: The only way to prevent grade inflation is to take grades out of the political arena. Using the universities for monitoring A -levels might be a much better way of achieving consistency over time.

Are you in favour of dropping A-levels in favour of the international bac?
Alex Shinder, Director

Peter Tinniswood: The international bac is an excellent exam but it does not suit everyone. The advantage over the A-level system is that the sixth form is not broken up with masses of exams in the lower sixth - interfering with teaching and learning - and that its standards do not suffer the ‘creep’ of A-levels. It is not so good for the ‘narrow’ specialist.

The perceived problem is the high pass rates and marks. If we accept that students are working hard then the present system does not differentiate between the gifted, the very able, the able and hardworking and possibly the lucky hard working. Where, then, is the challenge that will bring out the best in all levels of ability whilst making the distinction between them, thus enabling students to understand where each one stands in relation to their peers? Is it right that so many should be disappointed simply because both universities and employers cannot ascertain who is best and for what?
Peter Bray

Peter Tinniswood: There is no point having an examination that builds failure into the process. However, the current situation is that the lack of discrimination, particularly at the top end, means that the results do not provide universities or employers with sufficient means of distinguishing between applicants. A-levels were originally designed to be the entrance route to university. They therefore need to be intellectually challenging both to enable students to show what they can do and to excite the teachers whose enthusiasm and love of the subject will be conveyed to the students. With 23% gaining A grades, universities do not have the means of distinguishing between many different candidates. For this reason, increasingly alternative tests will be used so demanding more time taken in examinations. Some form of extension exam is the only way to discriminate between the different academic abilities – and using a system that is designed to test pupils, not teachers. At the moment, for the brightest academic challenge comes as much outside the exam system as within it, through other activities and academic societies.

It seems to me there is a structural problem with A-levels that any successor would need to resolve. At present there seems to be an incentive for exam boards to make their exams easier so they are more likely to be chosen by schools. How can this be resolved? Also, would a pass mark based on the top 1% of candidates taking the exam help maintain standards and take these decisions out of the political arena?
Caspar Cook, Edinburgh

Peter Tinniswood: I do not think that there is much competition between exam boards to raise pass rates as a means of attracting custom. There may have been fifteen years ago but it is not my experience now. The choice of boards depends on the type of course, its perceived quality by the school or college and the consistency of the marking and administration by the boards.

A lot is made of the UK’s suggested need to replace them with a new baccalaureate system to reflect the “virtues of breadth as well as those of depth”. This might suggest that all that is needed is an extension of the present GCSE system, where students carry on into the sixth form doing 8-10 subjects, rather than specialising in, say, three, but isn’t there a potential disadvantage to these “virtues of breadth”? Finally, wouldn’t it be a good idea to stop knocking the kids who are getting these good grades at A-level?
Peter Chapman, London

Peter Tinniswood: First, I absolutely agree that it is wrong that students are knocked by constant complaints that the exams have been dumbed down every time they get their results. Even if it is the case, it is not the students’ fault. From my own observations most work extremely hard and deserve their success. The problem is that with more gaining top grades the brightest do not get any extra credit for their abilities and effort.

There is a danger in the breadth/ depth argument. Of course we want to see literate and cultured mathematicians and scientists, and numerate arts and humanities people. In fact much of this is achieved through the range of activities that the young are involved in – it is simply that this is not tested through an exam. The danger of ‘breadth’ is that students do not gain really analytical skills that are essential for university and life. Indeed, the honing of analytical skills in one area usually means that students have the ability to apply them to other and different areas. Education should be about giving the young the tools to achieve in any area. The BAC approach is attractive if the standards and challenges are high enough and the depth in subjects is sufficient to give undergraduates the right foundation for their degrees. I am an admirer of the IB but it is not right for everyone. Its great advantage is that it has maintained its standards and is not accountable to governments and their wish to produce attractive statistics.

Lucy Kellaway: I agree that breadth is better and that it would be good to see more subjects studied for longer. I’m not sure that there is a trade off between breadth and depth - at least I think it is possible to study 10 subjects and have a syllabus and type of exam question that requires you to think as well as to cram.

When I did A-levels you got three As on cramming, and judging by my experience the other week I think little has changed. And yes, I do agree that it is hard on the 18 year olds who have three As to have their achievements belittled. The difficulty is that some of the people with three As will be exceptional students who have worked hard and really deserve places at whatever university they want to go to. Others will be more average students who have been well taught, and have crammed. As so many have three As it is impossible to tell which are which.

Chris Giles: Since there are limits on the quantity of material that any student can learn, there is clearly a trade-off between breadth and depth of understanding. You are right that a tiny bit of knowledge about every subject would make you good at general knowledge tests, but without any deep understanding of anything or an ability to analyse subjects conceptually. But it is equally easy to say that school learning should be about more than one narrow subject studied in great depth.

The difficult question is about what is the right amount of breadth in the curriculum aged 18. I am pretty sure that I would have benefited from a wider range of subjects than my three A levels - maths, economics and German - but a move to many more would have precluded some of the more analytical aspects to the A-levels I did.

I teach at one of the country’s leading business schools. The problem is that very few students have been adequately prepared for university-level study by A-levels - a situation which, even in my limited time as a teacher, seems to have been getting worse by the year. I regularly mark coursework. Many cannot write, or punctuate, a grammatical sentence - let alone sustain a logical argument in a 2,000 word assignment. Last year two of the three highest marks on one such assignment were gained by German exchange students - despite writing in a second language, they showed a sophisticated grasp of structure and argument that left their British contemporaries looking infantile and semi-literate. What I am seeing is not the product simply of defects in the A-level system, but of primary and secondary education more generally. Have A-levels been dumbed down? Barry Morse, Cardiff University

Peter Tinniswood: It is difficult to make a categoric claim that A-levels have been dumbed down. Comparisons are problematic because the nature of the exam and the course content has changed so much. I agree that in themselves A-levels are beginning to be an insufficient preparation for university and that is why universities are finding that they have to do more preparatory work than before. However, many of our past students report they are well ahead of their contemporaries.

Your comments about grammar and the ability to write at length and analytically remind me that there were some who had the same problem when I was at INSEAD in 1980! Coursework can give students the experience of research and extended writing and the best is excellent, but it is true that opportunities for extended essay writing are much more limited than they used to be. That is a failing of the system and we need to see more emphasis put on this. It will entail a change at GCSE as well. The advent of the structured question at GCSE and A-level has meant that more material is examined in ‘bite sized chunks’.

I note what you say about overseas students and certainly the German students we have at Lancing are excellent and articulate. It is interesting however, how many of them prefer the education here as they find it more open ended and they have more opportunity to think about issues.

The debate is once again centred on the tiny fraction of candidates who achieve three As at A-level. Last year’s figure shows this was less than five per cent of 17-18 year-olds. That is just about right if the A-level is designed to be a type of leavers certificate for sixth formers. Do we really need to discriminate further at the top end?
John Kerr, Development Director, Edge: Campaigning for Practical Learning

Peter Tinniswood: Yes, the debate is about the top end and that is where for the top universities, real discrimination is needed. We also need to provide courses that excite and challenge the brightest. The key skills to which you refer should be available in all sorts of ways – although not necessarily examined. For example, teamwork is learned through sport, music and drama where the individual is working with a group and the needs of the group are paramount. Part of communication comes when students are talking with each other, their parents and their teachers. One of the problems for some is that they spend so much time in front of a computer or television that they lose the chance of speaking with other people.

It is not a question of academic OR practical skills but rather the need for BOTH. Of course the academic dis-enfranchises the non-academic. That is why we need real technical education that is of an excellent standard to match the best in the academic. Sadly, some of the GNVQ courses, for example, have been changed to include too much of a quasi academic flavour. Just as we look to excellence in football academies, so we should for other types of education. There is no qualification that fits everyone. We should not be afraid of diversity.

Using marks does not really solve the problem for the A-levels. The exams and courses need to stretch the most able. The young enjoy and live up to challenges. We should not give them more of the moderate.

Instead of A, B, C etc, why don’t we use a percentage mark to differentiate between students?
Baha Al-shaikh

Peter Tinniswood: Whilst it would differentiate in a crude way there remains the problem of comparison between difficult and easy subjects. My concern is that we need to see more demanding questions so that the brightest can show their paces. There is little to be gained by seeing who has a mark or two more if the questions are mundane.

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