Comment on Michael Gove’s A Level Proposals

At last somebody in Government is recognising the obvious shortfalls in our Secondary Examination system. Michael Gove is only saying what educational professionals have known for years.

Since GCSE examinations took over from ‘O’ Level and CSE examinations in the mid eighties examinations have become progressively easier. Every year we hear of record grades. Clearly there hasn’t been some seismic shift in school age academic ability – the tests are easier.

The knock-on effect of this was that students with top grades in GCSE examinations were often not quite as academically able as their grades suggested. The leap to A Level became quantum. Instead of halting the GCSE slide, the government changed the A Level system to soften the blow. Easier A Levels meant that more students achieved top grades but differentiating students’ abilities at the top end became increasingly difficult. Oxford and Cambridge set their own examinations because A Level grades are no longer a clear indicator. They also investigate how many times students have retaken individual modules to get their grades.

If only we had some realists amongst the politicians; or at least somebody who will admit the whole truth. The point of academic testing is to evaluate students’ abilities. If the examinations are difficult the obvious result is that many candidates will fair badly. Politically this looks bad. However, being poor academically does not mean you should be thrown on the scrap heap; academic success is only part of the story. Proper vocational qualifications run in parallel with core subjects and genuine apprenticeships give everybody a future without the nonsense that every child can excel academically.

I praise Mr Gove for at least having the guts to question the system but we do need a centralised examination structure. Do we really want to set up some kind of multi-university committee to decide on A Level content? How will they ever agree on anything?

Universities should certainly be consulted on content but there should only be one examining body for school level examinations and it should be overseen by the government. The major Boards would not have to disappear; they could take on sections of the curriculum. Having multiple examination boards all setting tests for the same disciplines in tandem is another nonsense that needs to be reviewed. For example, two students may both have achieved ‘A’ grades in their GCSE Biology exams in the same year but may not have answered a single question in common. How can we possibly compare abilities in this way?

Centralise the exams and make them hard. At least then we will know where we stand.

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