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A-Levels

One might now be wondering what examinations are for. On Wednesday 18 March, the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson managed to say little of substance in his House of Commons announcement regarding the fate of this year’s public GCSE and A-level examinations, so one wouldn’t have expected him to attempt to explain their function at any time, pandemic or no pandemic. The Prime Minister had already declared (here) that examinations scheduled for May/June wouldn’t take place (‘we will make sure that pupils get the qualifications they need and deserve’) and Williamson, blagging like his master, was allowed to evade the issue time and again because no one there in the House managed to ask questions that might have forced him to give a straight answer. Accountability, anyone?

On the Parliament website (here), a brief summary of Williamson’s announcement emphasises Angela Rayner’s gratitude (‘The steps that have finally been taken today are welcome …’) as though one might already speak of Blatcherism 2.0. However, we must go to Hansard (here) to do justice to both Williamson’s performance and the lamentable state of the questions asked in Parliament on this occasion.

Williamson claimed: ‘We are working closely with Ofqual on a detailed set of measures that make sure that no child is unfairly penalised.’ One might have asked – no one did – why he had come to the Commons without details of these ‘measures’, unless discussions, like those with manufacturers (here), were at best an afterthought and even, in part at least, a figment of the ministerial imagination, something they’ll get round to eventually. Later he added: ‘We will also be looking to ensure that those who do not feel that the result is truly reflective of their work have a proper and substantive appeal mechanism.’ When, later still, he repeated the line about no exams taking place this year, he might have been asked if a new exam session might be scheduled for the autumn – September, say, or even November – with university courses starting, as some do already, in the new year. No one in Parliament asked this question. And then: ‘We are looking at putting in place additional measures, such as enabling a child rapidly to take a fresh set of tests or exams.’ Is this what ‘working closely with Ofqual’ means? Again – if this is the case, why were no details available to be included in this statement to Parliament? I hold in my hand a sheet of paper; I’ll let you know what’s on it when I’ve decided – or when Dominic has decided – what to write. Does ‘additional measures’ refer to a one-off exam session in the autumn or a kind of retake system for exams that hadn’t been taken, presumably on the basis that the ‘detailed set of measures to make sure that no child is unfairly penalised’ meant students could opt for exams if they didn’t like the grade they were given, aka the ‘substantive appeal mechanism’?

None of this was clarified, meaning that schools would close on Friday with no one knowing if exams would, indeed, take place, eventually. Williamson did promise ‘to publish further advice on A-levels next week’, but then slipped out a press release Friday afternoon (here), one overshadowed by the Johnson/Sunak press conference at 5 pm. At some point ‘more detailed guidance was published (here). It is extraordinary to think that any of the information contained in either the press release or the guidance couldn’t have been included on Wednesday. Moreover, it was interesting that a Guardian report (here) published at 5.40 led with and concentrated on the possibility that some schools might go for alternative exams, those not yet cancelled (an option closed off in the DfE’s guidance). A reference to the press release was tacked on the end as an afterthought.

All of this has been frustrating, to say the least, and that was doubtless always the intention. As elsewhere in the current crisis, the careful organisation of what is said and when fits the profile of a government committed to a model of disaster capitalism, a government that cares little for the impact on people generally, one that seeks only to increase anxiety. We’re told (here) that herd immunity is the way forward, and then (here) told it was never part of the plan after all; all they have ever wanted to do, apparently, is ‘protect life’. Since the December election – and opinion polls have helpfully appeared (here) and (here) to confirm that voters don’t regret producing a Johnson government, far from it – there has been a series of stunts orchestrated by Dominic Cummings, most obviously the decision to offer a job to Andrew Sabisky (here), all designed to see what can be said and how, and what the response will be. The handling of the coronavirus epidemic hasn’t been shambolic, far from it; and the way changes to assessment have been announced this week, fit the pattern. On Wednesday, when he wasn’t cancelling exams, Johnson was allowing pubs and restaurants to stay open but telling people not to go there. It was only on Friday, in the announcement that included nothing on education, that pubs and restaurants were finally told to close. In this report published just after the Friday press conference, The Guardian (here) went with ‘the latest example of the government scrambling to catch up with events’ because, well, The Guardian is still in denial.

So what, after all, are examinations for? One might suggest there is no longer a reason for GCSEs at 16 (here): do public examinations, then, serve no purpose other than to allow the Government to produce league tables and manufacture both ‘success’ and ‘failure’? As regards A-levels, in the last few years, there has been a steady increase in the number of unconditional offers made to students applying to university (here), leading to the possibility of a higher drop-out rate (here). Do universities even care any longer (here)? One might also ask what the purpose of A‑levels has ever been, but that is a step too far, I suppose. Universities might well insist that unconditional offers still account for but a small number of the total offers made; but The Telegraph (here) indicates the level of concern within a Conservative Party always horrified by the prospect of falling standards, and there are indications (here) that this is one aspect of the free market a Conservative government would hope to eliminate. In conclusion, one might dwell, therefore, on a contradiction contained in this week’s announcements. Williamson has insisted ‘the work [students] have done [will be] properly reflected’ in the grades awarded; if so, and he expects the validity of grades to be maintained, why won’t league (‘performance’) tables be published this year?

The UCAS Tariff will be familiar to those of us who have anything to do with university applications and/or admissions. Recently UCAS has carried out a consultation regarding the future of the admissions system, leading to the publication, at the end of July 2012, of the UCAS Qualifications Information Review (QIR, available here). Somewhat predictably the Telegraph has announced that the Tariff ‘is likely to be axed following claims the existing system is outdated’; further, this is a move that ‘could give institutions greater freedom to prioritise candidates taking the toughest courses’.

 

The Telegraph then recycles an article from August 2011 to remind us of David Willetts’ concern that the Tariff fails to differentiate between subjects. What Willetts and the Telegraph want is a system that defers to the higher status accorded to ‘classic’ subjects; and this is, evidently, what the Telegraph means by ‘outdated’, that the current system does not defer to those subjects. Hence: ‘It may also lead to some academic subjects such as maths, science and foreign languages being given higher ratings than more vocational qualifications.’ What Willetts calls ‘not core academic subjects’ are more often called ‘soft’ subjects, of course. (For the Telegraph’s take on ‘Mickey Mouse’ courses used to boost league table positions, see here. On subject choice and university applications, Fazackerley & Chant, 2008, provide background for the Telegraph/Willetts position.)

 

What the Telegraph means by ‘greater freedom’ is less clear. Universities already have as much freedom as they want to make offers based on grades, points or a combination thereof, offers that respond to the individual student’s application to a given course. If they have no interest in using the Tariff they are free to ignore it; and some might already publish lists of preferred/non-preferred subjects.

 

Moreover, if we read the QIR, the results are less clear-cut than the Telegraph’s triumphalism might lead us to believe. According to the QIR the ‘gradual withdrawal’ of the Tariff (Recommendation 2) is supported by two-thirds of HE respondents, but this ‘did not represent a significant change in practice’ (8). This does not read like a clear and unequivocal consensus in favour of change, a view corroborated, as shown below, by responses to Recommendations 3 and 4, where questioning explicitly addresses consequences. Moreover, those who support the Tariff do so because it is more flexible: ‘For HEIs who use the Tariff for setting entry requirements and making offers the recommendation was generally not supported’ (9).

 

One can see, then, that the QIR does indicate, at the very least, conflict between those institutions who think the Tariff hampers them and those who think its withdrawal would undermine their independence. This conflict is evident also in what is said regarding Recommendation 3 (The development of a rigorous means of comparing ‘demand’ across different qualifications) and Recommendation 4 (The provision of a simple qualifications metric for management information); and discussion here takes us back to ‘classic subjects’ and ‘not core academic subjects’.

 

On Recommendation 3 the QIR suggests a divergence between those wanting to emphasise ‘academic demand’ and those who preferred ‘a broader measure of demand, recognising the value of a wider range of skills’. Hence, ‘a narrow focus on academic demand would risk devaluing qualifications that aim to provide progression to employment as well as HE’ (10).

 

Moving on to Recommendation 4, we find ‘[c]oncerns … that a measure based on academic demand would devalue vocational qualifications and may impact on HEIs’ league table positions, widening participation, student recruitment and learner behaviour’ (11). A minority (‘[l]ess than a third’) of HEI respondents ‘agreed that such a qualifications metric should be based on measures of academic demand and qualification size alone’ (11).

 

One can readily understand that the Telegraph has no interest in reading and reporting what the QIR says. It might well be that the UCAS Tariff will be dropped; it would, however, be a mistake to see this move as representing any kind of consensus among HE providers.

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.

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).

Harmful specialisation

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.

Possibly the Daily Telegraph regards this interview with Andrew Hall, AQA’s chief executive, as a confession, the largest of the exam boards admitting their role in lowering A-Level standards. In particular, apparently according to Hall, although he isn’t quoted directly here, unlimited resits have led to grade inflation: last summer (2011) resits pushed the number of A-grades from 19% to 24%. This interview, in fact, contains very little that Hall has not said before (for example, here, with some indication of resit numbers).

 

The problem appears to be as follows. Curriculum 2000 introduced two-tier A-Levels made up of exams at AS (Advanced Subsidiary) after one year, and then at A2 at the end of the second year. Each component is worth 50% of the total, but final grades might be dependent – some would say heavily so – on students resitting first-year exams in the second year. On the face of it, then, one can see the logic of Hall’s suggestion that AS weighting should be reduced from 50% to 25%. The AS is no more than a 17+ exam; designed for the typical 17-year-old, it should be taken at the end of Year 12, after which time it becomes obsolete. Such reasoning is tied to notions of fixed ability, and this might help explain why there is already a weighting in favour of A2: the A* grade will only be awarded when students score 90% in A2 exams, no matter how well they have done in AS exams.

 

My response to this argument is twofold. Firstly, to say that students resit ‘easier’ exams to ‘unfairly’ boost their final grades is to ignore the possibility that, with a limited amount of time available, these resit students lose marks they might otherwise have gained in A2 exams. The view that AS resits produce grade inflation, then, rests on the assumption that the individual’s score on A2 units will remain steady, with or without resits. However, one should consider the possibility that, if they prepare properly for resits, they will likely devote less time to study at the higher level and, as a consequence, do less well in A2 exams. In effect they swap marks in one exam for marks in another.

 

It might well be the case that, in this trade-off, the resit marks gained exceed the A2 marks lost; if so, there might still be a case against grade inflation. This brings me to my second point. Here, as an example of what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development, one might consider the possibility that improvement in AS resits is based, at least in part, on the experience of having worked on A2 units for one term (if resitting in January of the A2 year) or longer (if resitting in the summer). Students improve marks in resits because they resit while studying other units at a higher level; and their achievement, described thus, is quite valid.

In a recent Guardian article, Mike Baker suggests the reintroduction of norm-referencing for ranking exam students: this is, after all, how we judge ‘the best restaurants, the swankiest hotels, the top football teams, the fastest athletes’. I suspect he might be mistaken if he thinks rank order in those named cases can be happily compared to each other, let alone made to correspond to the way norm-referencing would differentiate between students who have just taken an exam; and I think he is mistaken in his subsequent view that norm-referencing would undermine the obsession with targets. But no matter: I want to draw attention to his assumption that norm-referencing would restore public confidence in standards.

 

Here, standards is inseparable from exclusion; and the exam system is dysfunctional because too many students are avoiding exclusion through exam failure. Baker mentions in passing that norm-referencing ‘could prove demoralising’ for students who now have to settle for low grades, or even no grade at all, although he fails to point out that, previously, 30% of candidates automatically failed an exam: one might easily imagine the response from those middle-class parents of students who have benefited from the expansion of higher education.

 

In the Robbins Report (1963; available here) we find the following:

 

… we have assumed as an axiom that courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so. (8)

 

In the early-1960s, of course, very few students took A-Levels and had the opportunity to become ‘qualified by ability and attainment’, that is, achieve two passes. Further, that minority would become smaller once the 30% who automatically failed each exam were excluded. Nonetheless, the above quotation from Robbins invokes a principle, that higher education should be inclusive; and the role of the A-Level, in those circumstances, would be to confirm the suitability of candidates, not justify their exclusion. That an elitist system managed effectively to exclude so many students from participation might be ignored, which meant that the A-Level, as a qualification – as opposed to certification – was never brought into question. Only in the 1990s would this arrangement be threatened by increasing numbers of A-Level students achieving passes when norm-referencing was replaced by criterion-referencing and the apparent failure to differentiate by ranking students against each other as Baker suggests.

 

Yet those who doubt that the A-Level system still differentiates effectively should consider the following references. In 1996, Dearing’s Review of Qualifications for 16-19 Year Olds, from the outset, insisted that ‘our most able pupils [should be] stretched and rewarded for excellence’ (1). Implicitly, that reward is tied to the construction of another group of less able or even least able students. Then, 14-19 Education and Skills (2005), the white paper response to the Tomlinson Report, contained the following paragraph:

 

In 2004, around 3.5% of the age cohort achieved 3 or more A-grades at A-Level. We believe that there is more that we can do to stretch and challenge our brightest students. We also want to help universities to differentiate between the highest performing candidates. (63)

 

In the space of a few lines, then, we find (i) recognition that a small minority of students achieve the highest grades for a three-subject combination; then (ii) the claim that we still need to ‘stretch and challenge’ the members of this elite; and then (iii) the claim that universities still find it difficult to differentiate between so few students.

 

One might point out that a system allowing no more than ‘3.5% of the age cohort’ to achieve so well already provides ‘stretch and challenge’. Further, given that observation, the final sentence does rather beg the question: why is it necessary that universities differentiate quite so rigorously? Why are those responsible for admissions so concerned to identify the best student?

Since becoming Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove has outlined plans for a change to A-Levels, beginning here with ‘fewer, more rigorous exams’ and the end of modular courses; and a new ‘national ranking system for students, here. Such policy statements, of course, depend on the assumption that standards have declined and must be restored, as in his aim ‘to make exam questions harder … [and] restore confidence in the system’, here. In this post I wish to dwell on this article in the Daily Mail, an attack on ‘crude social engineering’ in the form of a plot by ‘the Left-wing education establishment’, ie ‘the deluded notion that background matters more than ability’. In defence of standards Gove challenges what has now become a ‘bizarre notion’, the view that, having ‘attended a poor school’, one ‘should be able to automatically leapfrog students who possess stronger A-Levels in the race for university places’. Weaker students, as a matter of course, have been allowed to use inferior schooling as a form of certification. By implication the ‘stronger’ candidate has had the misfortune to attend a good school.

Most obviously, Gove’s article should be read alongside Sutton Trust research that outlines the advantage one receives from attending one of a small number of schools; or, more recently, fall-out from the decision to raise tuition fees. However, I shall go back to the so-called Bristol Affair in 2002, when admissions tutors were accused of discriminating in favour of students from state schools, at the expense of students from private schools (and this account by Melanie Phillips suggests that Gove has merely conformed to hysterical Daily Mail house style). In response, Bristol University pointed out that ‘traditional admissions criteria’ were inadequate: ‘We are … adopting a more sophisticated approach to identifying academic potential. Excellence exists in schools of both kinds, and we have a duty to find it.’ (This argument, of course, should be familiar to students who have had to sit an entrance exam because the university in question insists that exam results are ‘inadequate’ as a means to selection; but that is a topic for another time.) Then, in 2005, the Times Higher Education claimed a scoop in exposing the admissions policy at Bristol: ‘Admissions tutors have been told to apply two filters to ensure that the system is weighted in favour of bright but disadvantaged pupils.’ In essence, the ‘two filters’ approach meant that Bristol was using a form of affirmative action (not, so far as I am aware, their wording; and not, of course, the same as positive discrimination, which is what Gove bemoans, above). Subsequently, Hoare & Johnston (2010) studied admissions to Bristol University, finding that, even though private school students had better A-Level results upon entry to degree courses, ‘students from state schools with such high scores are more likely to achieve the highest degree grade than are students with similar scores who attended independent schools’ (18). A similar conclusion was reached in the Milburn Report, Unleashing Aspiration (2009, 92-94).

Given that Hoare & Johnston (2010) provide a statistical analysis, one might investigate the validity of their results (and that too is a topic for another time). Nonetheless, the Govean dilemma is clear. Firstly, he wants a system that can measure students’ achievement in crude, positivist fashion without disturbing the status quo. Secondly, as elsewhere in education, we are asked to believe that social class no longer matters; there are ‘good schools’ and ‘failing schools’ defined solely by the competence of teachers. As Gove writes in the Daily Mail article, ‘excellent teachers’ are those ‘who [don’t] make excuses about their pupils’ backgrounds’.

The A-Level system has always been elitist, catering to the needs of a small minority of students; and this elitism hides behind the contradiction inherent in any meritocratic project, that effort must be reconciled to innate ability. Effort, in short, should simply confirm natural talent, otherwise it is mere compensation. Gove writes of ‘the simple and old-fashioned expedient of giving the most able students the highest grades’; and this is code for norm-referencing, when achievement was defined in terms of one’s place in relation to others in the hierarchy. A few lines down he is sympathising with those ‘hard-working students’ with ‘a string of great passes’ who then find their results do not ‘mark them out from the crowd or guarantee a cherished college place’. Here, to make sense, ‘hard-working’ can only mean ‘most able’, that is, those who should stand out on the basis of innate ability. He then complains of the lack of differentiation and the numbers walking off with a clutch of A stars’ (an award he thinks should be based on norm-referencing, of course). Only a small minority can, or should, ever be successful; and only a small minority should see their effort rewarded. Gove dreams of a return to the 1950s. His deception (borrowed, of course, from those times) is that any other scenario for higher education must result in a dilution of standards, the inevitable consequence when working-class students benefit from positive discrimination.