Back to the 1950s #2

In my last post I quoted from the opening pages  of The General Certificate of Education and Sixth Form Studies (Third Report of the Secondary School Examinations Council, 1960). I wanted to indicate that the A-level has long been considered unsatisfactory, and provision was indeed problematic from the outset. Here I refer to what the Report says subsequently on students’ workload:

It is clear that the pressure on sixth forms, and the amount of time which they have left for general education, varies in fairly direct proportion to the number of subjects in which pupils must be taken up to A-level (paragraph 58, page 16).

The Third Report cites concerns raised in an earlier (1955) report, specifically the view that an A-level curriculum based on university requirements ‘leaves little time for general reading and study’ (ibid). There is conflict, then, between learning and the instrumentalism of a curriculum geared to examination, all of which leads to the view that ‘passes in two subjects might represent a higher quality of achievement’ (58, 17). With the emphasis on preparation for higher education, three passes at A-level would be regarded as optional.

It is a truism to say that A-level study requires independent learning; this is what any student will say, simply because it is what they have been told, by teachers and others. The mysteries of ‘wider reading’ are seen, now as in the 1950s, as a vital preparation for higher education. Yet we now have a system based on prescription (‘you will take a fourth subject in the first year of A-levels, even if you don’t continue with four in the second year’); examination requirements, moreover, justify the careful manipulation of students’ time. The great myth of the 1950s was that the Tripartite System produced A-level students whose innate intelligence had only to be nurtured gently; assessment as we now understand it was not the issue.

Further, as our understanding of the A-level cohort has changed, so have our assumptions about the way students should be treated. In the 1950s students were typed by aptitude; so the extension of secondary education (to 15 after the War and by 1960, in proposal, to 16) required the protection of grammar schools and an examination system leading eventually to higher education. We should bear in mind that wider participation wasn’t invented in the 1990s, even if it did take that long to concern itself with the transition from secondary to higher education. For example, in Educating the Intelligent (1962), Hutchinson & Young describe ‘the less-able’ as ‘first-generation grammar-school children staying on into the VI’ (141). According to Hutchinson & Young these students would suffer from over-specialisation, precisely what the Third Report advocates for university preparation; subject-mindedness, it seems, was not for the ‘less-able’. Hutchinson & Young suggest the introduction of ‘half-subjects’ (ibid), which sound suspiciously like the AS courses introduced some forty years later by Curriculum 2000.

One might infer from all this that the more courses students take, the greater the degree of prescription, the less time they have for what the Third Report calls ‘general reading and study’. We are now critical of ‘teaching to the test’, but this had already been identified as a problem in the Third Report (see my last post for a longer discussion); even in the 1950s, and within the grammar school, there was a direct link between curriculum development, and the perceived ability of students. What we like to think are current complaints about the A-level were already being circulated, as the role of the A-level in both guaranteeing and policing standards was called into question. In the 1950s, as now, the dominant view had it that wider participation was impossible without a dilution of standards.


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