Sunday, July 4th

 I bought today’s Sunday Times intrigued by one of the stories on its front page, under the headline: “Gove plans A-level exam revolution”.

Michael Gove, the education secretary, it said, has announced plans to make the A-level more “rigorous”, by scrapping AS levels.

Universities, it said, would be invited to design new A-levels, which would be “modelled on the new Cambridge Pre-U qualification, taken by a number of leading state and independent schools in preference to A-levels”.

Gove said: “We will see fewer modules and more exams at the end of two years of sixth form and, as a result, a revival of the art of deep thought.”

This, though likely to be far from uncontroversial among teachers and sixth formers, sounded fair enough, I thought. Of course, pupils spend far too long preparing for and taking exams in their last years at school – the last four years, for teenagers taking GCSEs and A-levels, are now dominated by them. Addressing that problem is important, I think, for all the arguments that were advanced for the benefits of the AS system during the Curriculum 2000 reforms.

However, one sentence in this report had me shaking my head in disbelief. “The existing exam boards…could continue to offer the AS/AS combination, but Gove believes schools will abandon these exams as it becomes clear that they do not meet university requirements,” said the report.

Well maybe, but expecting Gove’s suggested return to traditional A-levels to thrive and attract candidates in serious numbers alongside the current incarnation of the exam looks very optimistic to me.

Why? Well, any exam that looks like it could be harder than what is on offer at the moment will struggle to win favour from students, and certainly from their schools, if it is plunged into a marketplace which still features these existing qualifications, and where results pressures are huge.

 If teachers and schools think they can get an A grade from something which is called an A-level now, and which gives them a luxury of a half-way result which will help them both to gauge their likely overall success in the qualification, and to have the potential to resit early papers, why abandon it for a system without these qualities?

Gove would no doubt respond that schools and students would do so because his exams would be  more highly regarded by university tutors. But I’m not sure. I think the Cambridge Pre-U itself, which sounds very like the Gove A-level, has faced a battle to convince even leading independent schools to abandon the A-level because, however much some might like the Cambridge qualification educationally, A-levels as currently constituted would be perceived by many to give them more control over achieving good results.

Don’t get me wrong: as argued, on the face of it I think there are strong grounds for thinking that Gove’s A-levels would lead to a better learning experience for the pupil. But, as my book argued, schools and pupils are not necessarily using this criterion to select courses, given the results pressures they face.

Launching this exam and then expecting it to win in the A-level “marketplace” looks optimistic at best, and naive at worst. If Gove really wants this reform to succeed, given the huge pressures on schools and students to achieve results, I think he is going to have to go further and abolish the route that he clearly thinks stands to be an “easier” option: the current AS/A2 A-level.


  1. It would be interesting to see whether some schools intentionally go for harder exams, knowing that a decent grade might be worth more in the eyes of admissions tutors than an A-grade at A-level…

    Tom Richmond, Policy Adviser on Education and Skills
    1. I think the evidence so far is that schools feel very cautious indeed about adopting such a strategy. A teacher from a middle-ranking independent school told me at a conference recently that all but the most academic schools were nervous about going for the Pre-U, for instance, because of worries that their students might find it tricky to achieve good results. I think that caution is understandable: you have to be very confident to go out of your way to seek out challenge in an exam. Also, it is not clear that university admissions tutors are always completely on top of the detail of the different qualifications, so someone getting an A on, for argument’s sake, an “easier” route might not find themselves penalised for this tactic at admission if the tutor was not aware that there were tougher courses. And would someone with a B on a tougher course be favoured over another who got an A on a route which might be seen as easier? I’m not sure.
      Of course, there may be trends in other directions. The International Baccalaureate seems to be winning favour among admissions tutors, and in schools, even though it is perceived by many as more stretching (certainly calling for more breadth of study) than A-levels.
      However, if the implication of your comment is that market pressures could lead to a rise in the standard of the qualification (ie “dumbing up”), I would say most of the evidence out there suggests market pressures lead to “dumbing down”, or a lowering of standards as institutions and individuals under huge results pressure chase routes which will give them the best chance of good grades.

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