January 23 was a good day to bury bad news. And make no mistake, the proposed reform of A-levels is very bad news indeed. With the prime minister making his much-trailed speech on Europe, there was much less coverage than there would have been on a lighter news day, although the A-level news story still made some headlines.
It is not just that it is another step backwards for the English examinations system, but it is a step backwards to a model that didn’t work. It is as if Michael Gove has decided to sell his smooth-running Jaguar and replace it with a second-hand Trabant.
A-level is a success story. It may not distinguish as well as it used to between the very good and the excellent student, but there is other evidence that universities can use to do that. It was invented in 1951 to be taken by about 7 per cent of the 18 year olds in the country. 62 years later, like the Jaguar car, it is a somewhat different model, now being taken by half the cohort, but, just as the Jaguar still carries the aura of its marque, so A-level is still recognisable as a high-level qualification and is known in many countries as a model assessment for 18 year olds.
The ‘vertical’ AS-level, introduced by Keith Joseph to broaden post-16 academic studies, was never popular and had a low take-up, mainly because two vertical AS-levels, although counting for the same UCAS points as one A-level, involved a lot more work and were not a good way to prise open the doors of the most selective universities.
I remember talking to Ron Dearing about this when he was conducting his post-16 review for secretary of state Gillian Shephard in the mid-1990s. “You need to abolish the vertical AS-level and introduce a horizontal AS as a half-way house to A-level,” I told him. “Write a paper for me, John,” was Dearing’s response. My voice was one among many at the time advocating this course of action, which, when implemented soon afterwards, greatly improved the A-level system, with 16 year olds now able to make a one-year decision on what to study and typically, after a year doing four subjects, making a further decision a year later on which three subjects to pursue to full A-level. Unsurprisingly, students often did not do the three subjects in year 13 that they would have chosen as their A-levels if they had been forced to make a two-year decision at 16. And the pass rate at A-level improved to the point where there were very few outright failures, not because A-levels were too easy, but because students had been able to give up at 17 the subject(s) that they were likely to fail.
The move back to a vertical AS-level is a retrograde step.
Six modules were too many, but four-module A-level courses have barely been tried before ministers have decided that modules are inherently bad, with no solid evidence base for their decision. Junior minister Elizabeth Truss was quoted as saying that modules encourage a ‘learn and forget’ approach to studying. In my experience as a teacher, that is exactly what terminal examinations encourage, especially among boys.
As with the so-called English Baccalaureate Certificate (EBC), the government has succeeded in uniting a very wide group of stakeholders in opposition to the A-level reforms – the CBI, the University of Cambridge, heads of state and independent schools. The Cambridge University reaction was particularly telling, saying that it would make their task of selecting 18 year olds more difficult and that the reforms would reduce social mobility.
Both the A-level reforms and the EBC proposals are wrong in principle and practice, when what is needed is an overarching qualification for 18 year olds that summarises a broad range of their achievements. A-levels, AS-levels and GCSEs can be part of that solution, as can technical and vocational qualifications, which are being dangerously downgraded.
Let us hope that Michael Gove’s missionary zeal to reform every corner of our education system (as some of his predecessors have tried to do too) will take him not just to Finland, Sweden and the Far East, but on a road to Damascus.