Labour stands by A levels

August 15, 1997

AS A substantial increase in A-level entries was revealed this week, Government sources moved to scotch rumours that the A level will be scrapped as part of the overhaul of 16-19 qualifications.

The provisional A-level results show an increase in entries this year of 5.2 per cent. In a robust defence of the "gold standard", Kathleen Tattersall, convener of the Joint Forum of Examination Boards, said: "The continued upward trend in the entry for A level again demonstrates the attraction of the A-level qualification to students who recognise its value as a passport to higher education and employment."

Speculation about the future of the A level under Labour has gathered speed since last June, when education minister Baroness Blackstone said that she would re-open consultation on the 16-19 qualification system. Her preference for a new "overarching" qualification, and her links with the Institute of Public Policy Research, which has called for an end to A levels, has fuelled speculation that she favoured a French-style baccalaureate to replace the current system of A levels and National Vocational Qualifications. It is understood that this brought her into conflict with secretary of state David Blunkett, who preferred the status quo.

This week, however, a senior source from the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority, closely involved with the 16-19 consultation, said that there would be "no revolution".

Just over 87 per cent of A-level candidates passed this year, an increase of 1.3 per cent. Last year, 86 per cent passed, up 2.1 per cent on 1995. The proportion of candidates achieving the top grade A plateaued out at 16 per cent, after a year-on-year increase.

A spokesman from SCAA was quick to undermine suggestions that the increased pass rate represented lower standards. "An increase in the pass rate does not necessarily mean that examination papers are getting easier or that candidates are getting more intelligent."

SCAA attributes the year-on-year rise to broader demographic factors. Candidates from higher social classes do better, said the spokesman, and the proportion of young people in the higher socio-economic groups has risen by 20 per cent since 1988. Girls are also doing better. Improved examiners' reports and more focused teaching are also making an impact.

But the rise of the "unfailable" modular course has caused controversy. This year those taking modular A levels doubled in number, and now make up 30 per cent of the A-level entry. SCAA conceded that students sitting modular syllabuses can "refuse to fail" through retakes, but insists that the rise of the modular course does not mean a lowering of standards.

The number of people taking general studies rose 15.2 per cent on 1996, the biggest growth, followed by business studies, with 14.6 per cent, and psychology, up 14 per cent. University science departments were encouraged by a 5 per cent increase in take-up of chemistry; maths was up 2.5 per cent and physics 2.2 per cent. Adding to the crisis in university languages, entry to French was down 5.7 per cent. Economics, overtaken by the popularity of business studies, slumped 15.1 per cent.

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