Posted on 21st August 2012
With results day only last week, A Levels are really in the spotlight at the moment, and as usual people are questioning whether they are hard enough and a good enough indicator of students’ academic ability.
Interestingly, this year was the first in over 20 that the percentage of top grades fell. Admittedly the percentage of A and A*s awarded only dropped by 0.4%, but this is still very significant. However, this has not been enough to deter people from suggesting that A Levels are ‘too easy’ and need of an overhaul.
Education Secretary Michael Gove has stated that he wishes to “improve” A Levels and make them “more rigorous”, since it has become easier to achieve high marks in many subjects.
One of Gove’s ideas is to return to the old system when sixth formers would only take exams at the end of two years, rather than sitting AS levels after one (as they do now). But this proposal has already ruffled quite a few feathers, particularly from admissions tutors at Cambridge University, who say that AS Level results are extremely useful in helping them to identify promising applicants.
Gove also wants top universities to take a more active role in shaping the A Level syllabuses and examinations. Although universities surely have enough on their plates, perhaps what this would do is lead to more ‘joined up’ thinking when it comes to the relationship between A Levels and degrees. A while ago I wrote about how many universities now need to offer ‘remedial classes’ to first years, as they arrive at university without sufficient knowledge to embark on degree courses. If universities set the A Level syllabus they may not need to fill in gaps when the students arrive after school.
Ministers in Northern Ireland and Wales are keeping a close eye on Gove’s proposals, as whatever changes the English education secretary makes will inevitably have a great impact on students in other parts of the UK. Currently 75% of students in Northern Ireland sit A Levels with the local Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA). Should A Levels in England become ‘tougher’, students who are awarded A Levels by the CCEA in Northern Ireland may be at a disadvantage when it comes to university applications, as their grades wouldn’t be as highly regarded.
Both the education departments in Wales and Northern Ireland have requested meetings with Michael Gove to discuss potential changes, so it will be intriguing to see both what the changes are going to be, and whether they will apply to Wales and Northern as well.