Permanent revolution of A Level exams helps nobody

What did you get? Niall Carson/PA Wire

A Level results are in and as teenagers pore over their grades, a record number will be able to take up places at university. The results – which show a small decline in the overall pass rate for the first time in 30 years, but an increase in those getting the highest A* grade – come amid a time of intense political attention on the future of these high-stakes exams.

The Coalition government’s current reform agenda plans to abolish AS Levels – exams that function as half an A Level that are mainly taken by 17-year-olds in their first year of sixth form. This year there has been a rise in AS Level entries, particularly in subjects such as Geography, Spanish and History, which children are being encouraged to take at GCSE.

But shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt has just announced that AS Levels would be reinstated and current A Level reform plans shelved in the event Labour return to government in May 2015 (something the polls suggest is quite likely).

Too many exams

That would be a shame. One thing the English education system is not lacking in is assessment, and three consecutive years of high-stakes testing (GCSE, AS and A Level) seems to be over-egging the pudding, to say the least.

AS Levels weaken what is potentially the strength of the A Level model: the opportunity to study a limited number of subjects in depth, to provide a real preparation for specialist university degrees.

In a high-stakes testing system, where results determine both the future prospects of students and the league table position (and, as a result, the finances) of schools and colleges, an element of teaching to the test (or whatever assessment is used) is inevitable.

In a “pure” A Level system spread over two years, that pressure is at least contained somewhat until the second year, giving more time to learning rather than exam preparation. Introducing AS Levels has meant that the pressures of high-stakes testing are continuous throughout sixth form.

Some would point to the increased breadth that AS Levels have introduced in terms of subjects. But in this respect they were always a half-baked measure. If more breadth (and, as an inevitable consequence, less depth) is what we want in our education system, this would require a more radical rethink along the lines of the International Baccalaureate. My answer to the question of whether we need AS Levels is therefore no.

Exams as a political football

But the political discussion on this reflects a deeper and more serious malaise in the national exam system. Increasingly, from the early years up to A Level, the exam system has become a political football. Successive education secretaries have introduced a never-ending stream of changes or, even worse, proposals that briefly shook up the system but were in the end never introduced (remember diplomas, anyone?).

This is by no means a new development (Labour’s AS Levels being the case in point here), though the hyperactive Gove was certainly a most enthusiastic culprit.

What makes things worse is that the level of intervention goes well beyond broad systemic changes or vision and extends into the actual assessments. That Ofqual even have to state that “grade boundaries will not be fiddled for either A-level or GCSE” is a sad indictment of the level of (perceived) interference, but not a surprising one following the nadir of the 2012 English GCSE debacle, when changes in grade boundaries left thousands of students with lower grades.

Again, this is not an issue of one particular education secretary or party, though the tacit encouragement of grade inflation under previous governments was perhaps more subtle.

This permanent exam revolution is counterproductive to its own aims. Changes that are meant to last don’t, because as governments change, the urge to “do something” and disown their predecessors work leads prior changes to be unravelled.

Restore confidence

Reforms to the exam system are often sold as “restoring confidence” in the system (as secretary of state for education Nicky Morgan did in relation to AS Level reform). Yet constantly changing the system does nothing of the sort. It causes disruption to schools and students, and leads to a situation where we cannot truly rely on patterns of exam results as a reliable indicator of the quality of our education system, or indeed of the learning of our students.

We need to depoliticise our exam system, where standards are set by a truly independent regulator. The exam regulator Ofqual is, of course, no more truly independent from the government of the day than all the other “Ofs” in our governance system. Changes should be made following a broad debate that actually involves real teachers, rather than at the whim of whoever occupies the department of education and her or his advisors at the time.

That is the only way we can truly restore confidence in the system. Until this happens, drawing conclusions based on changes to exam results, such as the slight drop in A-E grades announced today, is a superfluous exercise as changes are more likely to reflect political priorities than any real change in standards.