Taking a level measure, by Gordon Marsden

1 Sep 05
As soon as the A-level results are announced, the arguments start, as the qualification is denounced and celebrated in turn. But in the furore, the practical questions about the exam tend to be ignored

02 September 2005

As soon as the A-level results are announced, the arguments start, as the qualification is denounced and celebrated in turn. But in the furore, the practical questions about the exam tend to be ignored

Sweeping criticisms, followed by ritual defences, have almost become part of the A-level results season, the silly season to be blunt. Arguments about 'dumbing down' versus 'gold standard' can produce more heat than light. They also confuse, irritate and sometimes deflate pupils and students who have worked very hard over a two-year period, and their parents and families.

Individual successes in local schools — and the overall results — should of course be praised, scrutinised and looked at closely to see what, if any, improvements need to be made.

But rather than agonising over whether a 1% rise in the pass rate or a 4%—5% rise in a particular grade represents a golden educational future or the end of civilisation as we know it, there are far more basic and practical questions that we should be asking about our A-levels.

Most important of all, what are they there for? What are we expecting them to tell us? Are they there to test the innate abilities of our students or to see how good they are at acquiring knowledge in a subject over a two-year period? Are they there to show how successfully students have acquired particular skills and techniques that will benefit them throughout life? Or are they there to drum in some basic building blocks of information about science, language, maths and the arts that will stay with them throughout their lives and ground them as intelligent and responsible citizens?

These sort of questions don't always hit the headlines in the same way as the 'ya-boo' exchanges about dumbing down or 'never better', but they are the ones that are crucial for our students' futures and the skills we are going to need from them in the twenty-first century working world.

A lot of talk comes out about what employers want from A-level results. There's the yearly hand-wringing from the CBI or Chamber of Commerce about 'churning out' students with passes in 'irrelevant' subjects who can't write or spell or communicate properly. The same complaints often come now about the degrees those students acquire two or three years later.

But in my own Blackpool constituency, whose life-blood is tourism and small business, are A-levels or their equivalents in leisure, hotel management, marketing or business studies 'irrelevant' or 'Mickey Mouse'?

There is an acute shortage of qualified electricians, building and computer experts and even plumbers. Surely qualifications in these areas are just as valuable in providing skills and a guarantee of future employment as A-levels in media studies and psychology?

Where we have traditionally had a low stay-on rate past 16 at school and lower than average numbers continuing from A-levels into further and higher education, answering these questions is crucial. We have also to remember that education is now for life — more adult students than ever now do A-levels, either as a stepping stone to further or higher education or to acquire a competence or vocational need in its own right. Their requirements have to be taken on board.

If we want a great debate on A-level results, there are four immediate and constructive things we could do. The first is to look at the structure of the qualification. Are too many based only on coursework or on very short modules that don't give students broad knowledge or skills? Is it now like fast-food sushi, where students gobble from a plate of knowledge that passes like food on a conveyor belt and is forgotten about almost immediately.

The second thing we need to do is examine the balance between exam and course grades in determining the eventual A-level result. Life — and employment — is a mixture of showing solid and consistent achievement on tasks over a period of time and being able to respond quickly and efficiently when problems suddenly have to be solved or crises arise. Shouldn't

A-levels mimic this — instead of being either all coursework or all exam? The 50/50 balance between the two traditionally seen in Open University courses, for example, would seem a good model to emulate.

We also need to look again at how we give status and value to proper vocational qualifications that are A-level equivalents. Currently we have so many different vocational qualifications that it's difficult for employers and others to see what general abilities they show. Surveys show that most in the educational world and many in the general public want a far broader basket of qualifications to sum up school-leavers' achievements. Even if the government will not immediately go back to former Ofsted head Mike Tomlinson's recommendation on this, shouldn't we look seriously at rebranding some of the tried and tested vocational qualifications as 'VA' — Vocational Advanced levels?

We need to decide what we expect A-levels to do and get away from the annual mud-slinging over pass rates. Give students, teachers and parents a break — and would-be employees some light rather than heat.

Gordon Marsden is the Labour MP for Blackpool South and a member of the education and skills select committee