The Gold Standard

‘A’ levels are the best benchmark for measuring the academically gifted, but according to Dr Dick Evans, successive Governments have failed to enable them to have a more universal application.

The rejection of the Tomlinson main proposal to develop an over arching diploma rekindled the whole sorry saga of previous reviews and possible reforms of the A level system. GCE ‘A’ levels have dominated and largely determined the structure of post-16 curriculum in England, Wales and Northern Ireland for over half a century since their introduction in 1951 when they replaced Higher School Certificates. Since their creation A levels have been the predominant system for selecting people for traditional English three-year single honours degree programmes. This primary purpose was initially successful bearing in mind the relatively small numbers of grammar and private school students entering the examination. It must be remembered that ‘A’ levels were initially aimed at just 2% of the 16-19 aged population many at grammar and private schools and as such was an elitist examination. However as the numbers of candidates increased and the learner populations became more heterogeneous and their subject choices more diverse that logic came into question. Increasingly adult students took the examinations pursuing different modes of attendance and study which also raised questions about its structure and assessment methods.

In comparison with other equivalent qualifications A levels have survived remarkably well but have attracted criticism over the years. As a result of these concerns a number of major reviews have been instigated but have brought about little change let alone answered the criticisms.

These criticisms centre on a number of concerns namely:

Depth (specialism) vs. balance and breadth.

‘A’ levels are unique in offering specialised qualifications based on single subjects possessing as a result depth but providing little real opportunity to study for balance and breadth. For example students could elect to study subject combinations that involved only the sciences or humanities, or social sciences or the arts. This is acceptable for the more specialised degree programmes but as the candidate numbers increased they increasingly exercised greater choice of subject combinations which has highlighted one of the fundamental weaknesses of the A level system. This increasing trend of opting for mixed economy programmes has paradoxically attracted the opposite criticism particularly from employers and a number of universities namely that the subject profile lacks any real focus or specialist theme. It is this inability of the A level framework to provide a balanced overall outcome that is a major flaw in its single subject and open choice philosophy. Other countries offer students a broad-based education in a main field of study alongside some opportunity to specialise – the International Baccalaureate (IB) being a good example of this approach.


The focus on single subjects as mentioned above also neglects emphasis on the application of the acquired knowledge and skills and the prevailing view held by many people was that students would gain that practical knowledge once in employment. A couple of examples of this unfortunate belief was the failure to recognise and accept Design and Technology awards and equally surprisingly the rejection of A level Engineering by the Engineering professions and universities. Rejections of this kind reinforced negative attitudes to more vocational A level qualifications. It was believed that other qualifications would deal with the practical aspects of learning e.g. City and Guilds of London Institute (CGLI) and Business Technician Education Awards (BTEC) awards.

**The primary purpose of the A level –


The mismatch between the overall needs of current learners and this primary purpose is now in question. For many students who do not wish to go on to HE the qualification and associated curriculum is increasingly inappropriate. This fact is unfortunately reinforced by the generally held perception that other equivalent qualifications are second class and students as a result decide to study A levels. Unfortunately most parents and teachers seem to believe that A levels are the gold standard – the beacons of high standards and reliability. Sadly careers guidance often reflects the teacher’s own limited experience of work outside the education system. After all because of the longevity of the qualifications many people are only aware of the A level system. Numerous attempts have been made to develop alternatives, (see later), but none have managed to break the strangle hold of A levels. Many of the reviews and subsequent reforms have advocated an intermediate award and more recently vocational alternatives at the same level (see later). When one analyses how the previous proposed reforms of the system have addressed these concerns one can identify a number of approaches:

Increase number of subjects with reduced syllabus.

The Schools Council (SC) proposals for ‘N’ and ‘F’ level examinations (1973) first advocated this and the Higginson Committee (1988) proposed five leaner A levels. Both these reforms were rejected and A levels continued to dominate the 16 to 19 curriculum.

Change the assessment system.

Assessment was always based on an end of programme unseen examination with no real involvement of teachers. They could opt to be employed as examiners with particular boards and contribute to marking and moderation. Various attempts were made to increase the amount of course work i.e. projects, open book examinations which allowed more opportunity to liberate the learning and teaching but again this was a short-lived initiative and only in a few subjects was this more enlightened approach allowed namely Art and Design. Opponents of his argued it reduced standards and a similar fate occurred with modularity and unitisation of the ‘A’ level curriculum. This group formed a powerful lobby who argued end examinations sustained public confidence and credibility in the A levels and maintained independence from schools, colleges and teachers.

Introduction of core (key) skills.

For a number of critics the absence of any real curriculum requirements beyond those assessed in the subjects was a problem particularly in the light of the growing concerns about declining competence in numeracy and literacy. As a result a short – lived development in 1989-90 attempted to introduce these as core skills but this never really succeeded. This approach was resurrected by the Dearing review but again had limited success mainly because of the attitudes of many teachers who felt in was demeaning for ‘A’ level students to study such topics even in spite of growing concerns from university entry tutors about the declining levels of numerical and communication skills from prospective students. As a result core skills mainly focussed on non-‘A’ level students. Core skills eventually transmogrified into key skills comprising communications, application of number with a third recently added for IT. Key skills are very important and must surely be an integral part all qualifications and that most certainly includes A levels. One Tomlinson proposal thankfully accepted by the government is the introduction of functional mathematics into the future structure both the vocational diploma and ‘A’ levels.

New forms of qualification.

A number of worthy attempts were made to replace A levels over the past couple of decades which if adopted would have brought about a significant improvement to the post-16 curriculum. Space does not allow a complete review of these proposals but three merit a mention and involve the introduce of baccalaureate type frameworks and a general vocational set of awards (GNVQs).

The first proposal was the British Baccalaureate (BB) published by the Institute of Public Policy Studies with which a number of key Labour Party people were associated who later became significant members in the government after 1997 e.g. Tessa Blackstone and David Miliband. This and later proposals advocated a unified framework as opposed to an overarching framework embracing different qualifications. The BB also placed great emphasis on modularity, unitisation of the curriculum and innovative assessment regimes based on “fitness of purpose”. The unified approach would bring together the so-called academic (‘A’ levels) and the vocational qualifications and remove the vocational/ academic divide. Interestingly once in power the government totally neglected this radical reform. The BB proposals were followed by the Royal Society’s “Beyond GCSE” which again advocated a unified framework based on the best elements of the International Baccalaureate namely subject domains that would realise all the elements of depth, breadth and balance. The Society as one would expect stressed the essential need to continue science and mathematics beyond 16 alongside the students’ main subject elections. However all these proposals and others that followed were rejected. The latest example is the rejection of the Tomlinson proposals for an overarching diploma and the preservation of A levels with a watered down diploma for vocational qualifications. Hence the sanctity of A levels is maintained and the academic and vocational divide continues. The continuation of the duel system will perpetuate the view that vocational qualifications are second-class.

The final example given here is the introduction of the General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) in 1991 which attempted to bridge the gap between ‘A’ levels and the work-based route personified by CGLI/ BTEC/ other awarding bodies. Launched with great gusto and evaluated to death they failed to attract sufficient students at all the three levels that were offered namely foundation, intermediate and advanced. Many colleges tried to make GNVQs succeed but again history and prejudice intervened, the majority of them continuing to take GCSEs and ‘A’ levels. As someone involved in the Royal Society group and the GNVQ developments I know how carefully colleagues considered the benefits that would follow such reforms by creating a more fair and just system for all learners irrespective of their career intentions and personal expectations. Again short term political expedients over ruled educational logic and reality.

As one can see from the above commentary the proposed reforms have been numerous and frequent yet no real change has occurred. One negative outcome from these reviews and their rejection is the reinforced belief by the ‘A’ level supporters that the qualification is sound and secure. What changes have occurred are incremental as opposed to radical reform and always sadly driven by political imperatives e.g. the value politicians put on the attitudes of some voters from middle England whom they believe will determine the outcome of general elections. This is most certainly the case with the recent rejection of the Tomlinson proposals.

Another aspects that is overlooked by the critics and supporters of A levels is the distortion and tensions that the A level system creates in the education system. A levels have always been strongly influenced by the university system. Universities created the majority of examination boards as evidenced by their names – the exception was the Associated Examinating Board (AEB) created to offer ‘O’ and ‘A’ levels to technical colleges. The timing of the ‘A’ levels examinations and subsequent publication of the results was determined by the beginning of the university year and indeed this led to the way schools and colleges then set their teaching year. Critics have long argued about the lack of flexibility in the ‘scholastic year’ and this has caused innumerable problems for organisations wishing to release people to study at educational institutions at times that suited them. Interesting to reflect on the problems faced by college management when extended year programmes and multiple starting dates were required by the Manpower Services Commission (MSC). Staff were hostile to possible changes in their conditions of service and college management had to employ more part-timers and develop other staff deployment tactics in order to cover the programme schedules. The teachers of the vocational courses accepted the extended year more readily and were conscious of the needs of the employers and funding agencies. These problems were more manifest in general FE colleges which offered a wide range of vocational, professional programmes as well as ‘A’ levels. This aspect also caused tensions between the staff teaching across these different courses as inevitably there were mismatches in the teaching years and very often college managers would receive deputations from vocational staff about the inequalities that this created.

The pervasive and distorting influence of ‘A’ levels has affected negatively the way post-16 education and training has been managed and operated over many years. I am very aware many staff and managers in the education system will disagree with me but having seen at first hand these various consequences I look forward to a government of the day carrying out a radical and fundamental root and branch reform of the examination system post-16 which removes the vocational academic divide and establishes parity of esteem between vocational, work based and academic qualifications. Only then can we truly address the current problems associated with skills shortages and better prepare students to enter university to study such subjects as science, mathematics, statistics, engineering, modern languages etc. – with a post-16 qualifications, curriculum and examination system that realises breadth, balance and depth. Then and only then will we begin to increase our international competitiveness, productivity and compete in the global market.

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