Two-year sentences

Michael Gove is wrong, says Chris Hackley: a return to ‘traditional’ A levels will narrow access and do nothing to raise standards

February 7, 2013

Source: Rose Barton

I took A levels for the first time in 1978, when about 12 per cent of 18- to 30-year-olds in the UK attended higher education institutions, compared with some 45 per cent today. In those days, an A level was a two- year yawn through classes consisting mainly of the dictation of “notes”. The grade was decided at the end when students attempted to transcribe the “notes”, with varying degrees of inaccuracy, in unseen examinations. Enterprising kids got by on six weeks’ cramming. The rest was five terms of existential tedium.

My disposition towards A levels improved later on when I discovered that I was much better at doing them without the distraction of other pupils - or, indeed, teachers. I got the syllabus from the library, read the set books, paid a modest entry fee and sat the exams at my local further education college. Job done.

Later still, I turned gamekeeper and taught A levels in further education until the mid-1990s. I enjoyed the freedom that the two-year course and detail-lite syllabus gave me to be creative in my teaching. But when I started marking A levels for two examining boards, I realised there wasn’t a level playing field. My classes managed a 95 per cent pass rate with one or two A or B grades on an easy-going regime of one essay a week (if my students felt like writing one). Some exam centres were delivering me heaps of rote-learned essays to mark. They were correctly spelled and plausible but formulaic and bereft of personality or insight. Students were being hothoused into respectable results with intensive (and no doubt expensive) cramming.

Today, A levels are very different. The introduction in 2000 of the AS level as a one-year, halfway qualification, along with continuous assessed coursework, has improved pass rates and increased student retention in sixth form. My sons’ A-level syllabi in English and psychology look much more detailed, difficult and engaging than the minimalist two-year courses I studied and taught.

I was surprised, therefore, when I read that the education secretary, Michael Gove, had announced that A levels will return to their original two-year, one exam, no coursework model in 2015, ostensibly to improve standards. This reactionary and ill-considered move may well damage higher education participation and narrow access, but it will do nothing to raise standards.

The current A level isn’t perfect. Along with most university academics I know, I sometimes complain that many university students today seem to lack intellectual independence and maturity. Some first years are astonished when told that their first essay mark cannot be traded in for a better one. Many A-level teachers offer generous revise-and-resubmit services for their students’ coursework; with upwards of 10 times as many students, the typical university teacher outside the Oxbridge tutorial system cannot generally do the same. Persistent calls for more “feedback” from students similarly hark back to the unspoken bargain the sector made with the government when it rapidly expanded student numbers and student- to-staff ratios in the 1990s. Many academics would be more sympathetic to the pleas for more feedback if they felt that students were engaging in a more mature way with the teaching they do get. Most universities have struggled to adapt the mass teaching model to the mentality of increasingly overdependent students, but the students generally do catch on, given time.

Where Gove’s idea really misses the mark is that students’ apparent lack of intellectual maturity is not caused by the A-level assessment structure: it arises because success in academic study is much more to do with emotional readiness and socialisation than it is to do with innate ability. We live in a culture of distraction and, while a fortunate few seem to be born with intellectual poise and verve, most, like me (first degree at 25, PhD at 40), take a long time to acquire a sense of intellectual independence and confidence.

AS levels are seen as a stepping stone to A levels, and more than 1 million of the exams are sat every year. Under Gove’s proposal they will no longer count for university entry. The pool of potential university entrants will shrink to the 335,000 or so taking A levels, a number that could well shrivel further once the reality dawns on teenagers that A levels will, once again, be a two-year sentence of penury and boredom without coursework or the AS level to break the monotony. This won’t matter much for students in intensively supported private schools: they will cram away, writing a dozen essays a week under the careful coaching of teachers with doctorates. Good for them, but for many others, the two- year chasm in their lives as they wait for their day in the A-level exam hall will be difficult to fill.

The implications of a reduced A-level cohort for the higher education sector are stark. Many of the 180-odd higher education institutions will be forced to compete for more students with non-A-level qualifications. This will drive an even deeper wedge between the elite universities and the rest, because the top independent schools will continue to feed the top few universities with plenty of A-level students who have well over 400 Universities and Colleges Admissions Service points, who are emotionally ready to learn and who don’t address academics with “hey” in emails.

These universities will find their world little changed by Gove’s proposals, but quite a few others might find that if the A-level assessment structure is reduced to the end-of-course examination, those immature, unready first years might be replaced not with intellectually confident and accomplished students but rather with empty seats.

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