Learning curve: is it time the A-level system graduated?

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In a recent letter to The Guardian, former HM Inspector of Schools, Professor Colin Richards, made a fairly sad admission. “Despite a century or more of research and ‘measurement’”, he wrote, “we still have no firm, reliable or systematic way of assessing young people’s understanding. Our examination technology is crude, partial, inadequate and discriminatory. The mental health of many former students bears witness to that.”

This might not be surprising news to anyone who followed the recent grade inflation debacle. If you haven’t seen the statistics – 44.8% of all A-level entries were marked at A* or A, up from 25.5% pre-pandemic, and 30.2% of all GCSE entries were given a seven or above, up over 10% from 2019. By trying to make this year’s A-levels and GCSEs comparable to other years by producing results, but not having students take exams, former Education and Defence Secretary, Gavin Williamson, made them redundant both in their own right and in comparison to other years. 

When nearly half of all grades are As and A*s, those cease to be useful, or impressive, grades. Especially when almost every other cohort has seen only a quarter of students achieve them. To put it bluntly, this year’s exam results are about as useful as Gavin Williamson was as Education Secretary. I’ll let you make of that what you will. 

We haven’t even got onto the disparities within the grade inflation itself yet. At GCSE level, 61.2% of results at independent schools were grade 7 and above, compared to just 26.1% in comprehensive schools. This means that grade inflation compared to 2019 was 14.6% in fee-paying schools, compared to 7.4% in comprehensives. At A-level, 70.1% of all private school entries scored at least an A, up from 44% in 2019, and 35% ahead of state sixth-form colleges.

This year’s exam results are about as useful as Gavin Williamson was as Education Secretary.

Whilst I don’t want to go too far into the ‘private school or no private school’ debate, a very obvious risk of establishments selling education as a commodity, and then solely using employees of those establishments to assess the paying attendees, is a somewhat generous assessment of those students. Money talks, and if private schools continue to exist, then teacher-based assessments simply cannot be an option when considering how to formally assess our students. 

However, this year’s grade inflation is a short-term problem that can be fixed. Whether it should simply be smoothed over and moved on from, is a very different question. Finding the answer now falls at the feet of former Vaccines Minister and junior Education Minister, Nadhim Zahawi. Zahawi’s stock has risen as the ‘brains’ behind the U.K.’s vaccination rollout. He’s now got to prove himself to be a miracle worker and turn the five fish and one brain cell currently rattling around the DfE into a functioning education system for the children of Britain.

For better, or for worse, education has become a means to employment for the majority of students. Zahawi highlighted this upon receiving his new job, saying, “I want all children, young people and adults to have access to a brilliant education, the right qualifications and opportunities to secure good jobs. That’s both vital for them and also our economy and is more important now than ever before.”

One of my favourite YouGov polls revealed in 2015 that 37% of British workers consider their jobs to be “meaningless”. In a nation where more than one in three jobs is meaningless, you have to create meaningless ‘standards of education’ to prepare and qualify people for a world of further meaninglessness. Meaninglessness begets meaninglessness, and all that. 

A-level students are pushing themselves to new limits year on year

There are two main victims of this cycle. A degree has become the standard for most jobs in today’s market, however meaningless they are. This affects both A-level students and the meaning of a university education in general. A-level students are pushing themselves to new limits year on year, sacrificing social lives and their own mental health to get the grades necessary to get into university, because they’re told that you need a degree to get a job. 

A-levels themselves are an incredibly poor way of assessing students, as the former HM Inspector of Schools mentioned. Deciding a student’s future on the back of a few exams promotes cramming, which isn’t conducive to long-term memory retention, or a useful life skill for anything other than taking exams. 

Due to how they’re both written and marked, you can also be taught how to take these exams well. Given that better teachers predominantly tend to follow the money and work at private schools, as they’re better paid, this exam structure also tends to favour private school students, making the current A-level system inherently discriminatory. 

Using university as a vessel to qualify for a job unrelated to your degree also devalues university education. Rather than the pursuit of academic excellence, or the development of vocational skills, the focus has turned to getting a 2:1 in whatever you can, from wherever you can, just so you can say you have a degree. Most people rack up thousands of pounds of debt along the way. 

The U.K.’s education system is deeply dysfunctional

My proposed solution to this problem is to cut out the middleman. By the middleman, I mean the non-vocational university education, where the only aim is to get a job completely unrelated to that degree. Students would go to university because it’s either the way to get the vocational qualifications they need, or because they’re genuinely passionate about the subjects they go to study. 

If employers then tailored their individual employment processes — actually interviewing students and hiring them based on individual, personal qualities and skills as people, rather than attributes on paper — A-level grades would become mostly irrelevant. Education between the ages of 16-18 could be spent discovering what you enjoy, preparing yourself for the world of work, or future study, that you’re genuinely interested in, rather than pigeon-holing yourself into a future you feel forced into at 16. 

As it stands, university education is being devalued to a breaking point and mental health in A-level students continues to plummet. The U.K.’s education system is deeply dysfunctional, dependent on an examination system that can be discriminatory and is not conducive to actual long-term learning, or reflective of any real-world skills. 

Nadhim Zahawi is, in my view, better qualified, more intelligent and better respected than Gavin Williamson ever was or will be. Not allowing himself, or his ambitions, at the DfE to become bogged down in the culture war, which Williamson so often decried as the biggest threat to today’s students, has to be at the top of his agenda. Actually enacting positive change can only come about in Britain’s education system, if those at the top recognise the real issues and take active steps to change them. 

Image: UK Government via Flickr

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