A Level Playing Field

A Level Playing Field

Tim Oates, Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, argues that changing A Levels is easy – it’s just the wrong thing to do. The following article by Mr Oates features in the March 2014 edition of Total Politics:

So yet another report states A Levels are narrow and limiting – impacting negatively on learners, society and the economy. 

Higginson, Dearing – we can now add Sir Roy Anderson’s review to the list. But a careful, rather than cursory, look at the international evidence suggests that calls to ‘get rid of A Levels’ are seriously flawed. 

The failure of the English education system is to sustain a rate of improvement comparable to the ‘most-improved nations’ but it is vital to recognise that many of the deeper causes for this lie in problems in the form and content of education in the primary phase, not the post-16 segment. The key point is this: ensuring that the majority of the cohort reaches a high standard in a broad and balanced curriculum by the age of 16 allows more intensive specialisation in the 16-19 upper secondary phase. 

In turn this feeds into highly-intensive, high quality, short-duration first degree programmes in Higher Education – typically of three years’ duration. This model is highly respected by other nations – and encourages many foreign students to study here rather than in countries with four year first degrees, not least because it is time and money efficient. A Levels are vital in enabling high -intensity three-year first degrees – and moving from this threatens standards in HE and drives up costs. 

If there is an ‘English Disease’, it’s that we’ve stopped thinking about what a sound 16-19 curriculum looks like, what broad learning and objectives it should contain, and lapsed into a reductivist position of seeing the curriculum as something built solely of qualifications. 

But a sound curriculum framework consists of deep knowledge; skills and understanding; learning habits; dispositions and values; and expansive and rich experience. 

Seeing A Levels as the problem could find us departing from the qualifications in the highest-performing jurisdictions, not aligning ourselves with them. How can this be? Surely A Levels are uniquely narrow; uniquely English? Rhetoric might encourage this position. The international evidence suggests something else entirely. 

Far from England being unique, many important countries have direct analogues of A Levels. In these systems, there exist qualifications which are almost identical in form and scope to A Levels. Here is the list, and it breaks common perceptions: 

The USA – pupils in upper secondary do not get into university on the strength of SAT scores alone. Increasingly, pupils take three or four Advanced Placement examinations – these are subject-based examinations with a very similar scope to A Levels. 

  • Finland – (with a vocational route from 16) pupils study around nine subjects in the academic track - but they are not examined in all of them. To matriculate, students are required to take four examinations – one of which is mandatory (in Finnish language). The exams are six hours long. The curriculum may be broader than in England, but the examinations are highly aligned to A Levels. 
  • Germany – (with a highly regarded vocational route from 16) is in a similar position to Finland. The German Abitur is broad in curriculum content, but students typically take three specialised examinations – again highly aligned to A Levels 
  • Singapore – which, of course, uses A Levels, working with Cambridge International Examinations 
  • Finland and Germany don’t assess everything which moves, nor do they see qualifications as the whole story – and as a result, have a rich and broad curriculum, with exams in selected areas which look exactly like A Levels. 

And what of the idea of A Levels as narrow and inflexible? Well, the most common combination of A Levels is Maths, Chemistry and Biology. This top combination is only taken by 4% of those taking A Levels. Our researchers stopped counting the possible number of A Level subject combinations when they reached 10,000! The A Level system is incredibly flexible, enabling it to be responsive to individual, economic, and social need. 

We don’t need to reform A Levels, we need to change the way we think about learning programmes. We need to get some decent curriculum thinking in place. Abandoning specialist examinations at 18 would be moving out of step with international evidence, not moving towards it. 

We have spent endless years reforming qualifications – the main result has been an education system bogged down with change management. Why not be really radical? Leave the qualifications alone, since there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with them, and get on with dealing with the real problem – an absence of genuine curriculum thinking in the 16-19 segment of the system.

Tim Oates is Group Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment. He recently advised the Government on the development of the new National Curriculum.

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