And so Ofqual is running scared, one might infer from reports in The Daily Telegraph (here) and The Guardian (here). This is but the latest stage in Michael Gove’s attempt to return us to the golden age, located somewhere in the 1950s, that he freely invokes whenever bemoaning the inadequacy of A-levels currently. On this occasion I shall confine myself to quotations taken from a report published in 1960, on behalf of the Ministry of Education. The General Certificate of Education and Sixth Form Studies was the Third Report of the Secondary School Examinations Council. What follows here was also covered in Chapter 26 of the Crowther Report (1959, again with thanks to the fine educationengland.org.uk); evidently, then, the A-level was in crisis after less than 10 years.
Cramming and mark-grubbing
The SSEC Third Report begins with schools complaining that the A-Level, ‘originally intended as a qualifying examination for university entrance, has increasingly become an instrument for competitive selection, with the consequence that university selectors have come more and more to ask for, and to rely on, numerical marks’. Hence there had developed ‘an unhealthy competition in cramming and mark-grubbing, which is anything but congenial to good education and is not always or necessarily a satisfactory method of selecting the best candidates’ (paragraph 7, page 3).
Further, ‘as the pressures intensify, and the sheer volume of knowledge mounts up, syllabuses [sic] are becoming more and more overloaded … and specialisation is thus tending to increase to a still more harmful degree’ (8, 3). Universities agreed with this criticism, ‘comment[ing] upon the lack of general education in the boys and girls coming to them from the schools’. Interestingly, the Report here suggested that universities might consider ‘the extent to which their own requirements might indirectly be a contributory factor in causing the defects which they were deploring’ (12, 4): here in 2012 we might think about Gove’s decision to allow universities to design A-Level courses.
Attainment or potential, and a new U-level
Back in 1960, universities felt the A-Level, by ‘register[ing] a pupil’s standard of attainment’, did not ‘offer guidance on [their] potential’. Moreover, ‘a simple pass-fail examination is rightly felt to be too blunt a measure for this purpose’. Universities wanted information about the level of achievement, but also felt ‘there appear to be variations of standard between the results of one Examining Body and another which further impair the reliability of A-Levels (10, 3). They felt that ‘the results from scholarship papers were reliable only at the highest ranges of ability’ (11, 4).
Consequently there were proposals for a new award for those hoping to go to university, ‘an entire new examination at a higher standard than the Advanced level’. There were already scholarship papers but they did not involve awards at a higher level than A-level. The proposed new papers ‘would be specially designed to test promise rather than achievement’, which seems to be a reference to innate intelligence of the kind that would flourish at degree level; the A-level would then be modified and become a school-leaving certificate. Further, if A-level passes were available at the new U-level, ‘the abler sixth-formers’ could simply ignore A-levels altogether’ (16, 5), even if the U-level were characterised by ‘questions of a more searching kind’ (17, 5).
Hence there is a distinction between ‘abler’ and ‘non-university’ students (18, 6). The reader in 2012 will be familiar with that construction.