The A-level results fiasco has not just highlighted the failings of a Byzantine grading system, it has reignited the debate on the best way to educate the English population. Tony Tysome listens to the alternatives.
It will take a long time for the dust to settle after this year's A-level results fiasco. But academics and policy-shapers are already looking ahead to reforms that they would like to see introduced, and with the 14 to 19 white paper set to be published later this month, the debate is likely to rumble on.
The verdict of former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson in last week's initial report on the A-level debacle will fuel speculation that some significant reforms are on their way. He concluded that the new A levels in the fledgling Curriculum 2000 system were "an accident waiting to happen" and that there was "no clear, consistent view among awarding body officials and many examiners and teachers about the standard required at AS and A2 unit levels".
The implication is that Curriculum 2000 either needs fixing or replacing. According to Alan Smithers, professor of education at Liverpool University, the modular structure of the new system has made confusion inevitable. By making the business of monitoring standards and grading more complicated, it has also had a damaging effect on the A-level curriculum, he argues.
"Because of modularisation, there is a crushing load of assessment, so the exams are really determining what is learnt rather than allowing students to engage with the subjects," he says.
Smithers says that although it might be politically impossible for the government to turn back the clock, the best remedy is for A levels to revert to their traditional mode, but with tougher standards in place - more challenging coursework and more searching questions - so that manipulation of results to combat grade inflation is not necessary. "It could be done through an extra exam," he says, "but it would be better to build it into the A-level exam itself."
Tony Higgins, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, says the grading system and its relation to the A-level points tariff are so complex that his organisation was forced to write a sophisticated computer program to deal with it. He wants to see a protocol devised with all the awarding bodies to get round the current problems whereby "they are all using different formulae for expressing the grades".
Although there has been talk of introducing a single exam board, some educationists believe this would only make the situation worse. Smithers says the current fiasco may only have come to light because the different boards were doing things in different ways. Several organisations and key individuals are calling for an overhaul of the Curriculum 2000 assessment system and the introduction of an overarching diploma or baccalaureate-style qualification - one argument being the fact that these would have more elements, including non-academic ones, making it harder for accusations of political interference to undermine the system.
The Association of Colleges, representing further education and sixth-form colleges, says its preferred model for a "learning and skills diploma" would be more flexible than either the matriculation diploma proposed in the government's 14 to 19 green paper or the International Baccalaureate supported by independent schools. It would award credits for all A-level and equivalent qualifications, key skills and work experience.
Judith Norrington, the AoC's director of curriculum and quality, says: "It is more than just an academic model. It is based on the principle that education must offer opportunity to students of all abilities. Currently less than half of all 16 to 17-year-olds still in education study A levels."
David Robertson, professor of public policy and education at Liverpool John Moores University, would like to see a more radical overhaul. His preference is to import the French Baccalaureat "lock, stock and barrel". "The French Baccalaureat is tried and tested and it is hugely successful. It is scrupulously objective, and there is no tinkering with it."
Robertson argues that Curriculum 2000 should be replaced quickly, rather than over five to ten years as suggested by some government officials. "If you drag it out, the uncertainty over A levels will continue and it will be a mess. Everyone knows the government really wants a baccalaureate. What they have done is a typical British compromise of edging towards it. We need to stop cobbling things together: we don't want a kind of baccalaureate, we want a real one."
Talk of sweeping changes has had others urging caution. Cath Orange, chair of the admissions practitioners group for the academic registrars council, says it is too early to pass judgement on Curriculum 2000.
Roderick Floud, president of Universities UK, calls Curriculum 2000 and the government's proposals for an overarching diploma "a move in the right direction". But he adds: "One would have to think very hard before dismantling the system in favour of something like the International Baccalaureate."
And Chris Hughes, chief executive of the Learning and Skills Development Agency, says: "We need to be clear about what A levels are for. If the problem with them is that there is no longer a rationing basis for higher education entry, then we need to base arguments for change on that, rather than suggesting that the problem is one of grade inflation."
Some have suggested turning the clock back further, and reverting to university entrance exams. In fact, A levels derive from such exams, which is why the boards are located in higher education. London University set up a school-leaving examination in 1905, and in 1917 the government followed suit by introducing the school certificate. This was actually a kind of baccalaureate qualification. It proved too inflexible since too many otherwise good students failed the compulsory Latin part of the exam. A levels replaced it in 1951.
For most, the idea of students travelling the country to take a variety of university entrance exams is impractical. A more forward-looking approach, supported by Ucas, would be to change the examinations timetable so that students know their results before applying to higher education, argues Chris Price, chair of an independent commission on the organisation of the school year.
He says: "The modularisation of qualifications has tended to concentrate minds on curricular details and the balance between coursework and exams, rather than on the realities of the admissions process for which the qualifications are mostly used.
"This whole mess might not have happened if the kids had got their results in early July. It would have been sorted out by now."
Alternatives to A levels
This award proposed in the government's 14 to 19 green paper, would place an "umbrella" over A levels, along with GCSEs, vocational qualifications, and modern apprenticeships. It would be made up of a common strand of literacy, numeracy and ICT to level 2; main qualifications such as A levels and GCSEs; and participation in activities such as citizenship and work-based learning.
The diploma would be awarded at three levels: intermediate, for those whose main qualifications are achieved at level 2; advanced, for those reaching level 3; and a higher award, based on broader, more advanced achievement.
Students have to study six subjects, which must include English, maths, a foreign language, a science, a humanities subject and one other subject.
IB students must study the theory of knowledge and complete 150 hours of sport, artistic activities and community service.
Institute of Education academics have proposed a version of the baccalaureate, starting at age 14. It would consist of a series of interlocking diplomas from entry through to advanced level and would cover work-based learning. Students taking the advanced version would be able to do a general bac or a specialist bac. All the bacs would contain a compulsory core of critical thinking, theory of knowledge and research study, and each student would get a record of other activities such as community service.
This is a broad-based qualification that is taken by 62 per cent of French 18 year-olds who achieve a pass rate of about 80 per cent. It covers subjects ranging from the liberal arts through to industrial technology. But there is flexibility between vocational and academic channels of study.
Students take ten subjects, six of which are core subjects, including literature, languages, science and maths, weighted according to the other subjects they want to study.