Studying for exams

What now for A levels?


The president of the Royal Society has thrown his weight behind MPs who are seeking fundamental changes to the provision of A levels at 18. He has repeated the long-held view of both educators and business that the present system is far too specialised to meet the future needs of the workforce in a period of complex and rapid change in I.T. and robotics.

The present system allows for 6th form students to sit 3 or 4 A level subjects after two years of intensive study. Students have to choose either a science curriculum or the liberal arts. In effect this means choosing a rigid, specialist career path at the age of 16. Many would argue that is far too young to make this choice, though, as the students will yet to have been well enough informed on the matter.

AS level (taken in the first year of 6th form study) no-longer counts towards A level grades. The majority of A level syllabuses do not have a modular structure or a coursework component (both are expensive to run). This system is largely dictated by competition to secure a place at a top university who are keen to attract students with the high grades of A* or AAA. This is, of course, partially driven by the academic nature of their degree courses, but also, a cynic might argue, by the need to reduce class contact and tutorial time at university. Academic staff are encouraged to prioritise reseqarch which attracts government funding and enhances academic careers, whilst teaching does not.

Many schools do offer their students the opportunity to add an extra subject in the lower 6th form, with the common practice being an arts subject added to 3 A levels. But students are heavily pressurised to give up this extra subject after a year, i.e. after the AS exam in the summer so as not to jeopardise their A level grades. Perhaps the real difficulty is the competition for university places, rather than the inappropriate subject offering at AS/ A level in the workplace.

What the President of the Royal Society is envisaging is that all students study science and maths up to age 18, alongside a selection from English, Geography, Languages and Technical Skills. But this seems to me to be just an arbitrary choice of selected traditional subjects rather than a root and branch restructuring of an integrated curriculum geared to a 21st Century industrial society. It also raises the perennial question: What is education for? Is it to serve the material requirements of society, or is it to develop critical minds and moral values, enhancing the lives of individuals rather than the perceived material good of society? There are also the obvious practical problems associated with funding in this period of austerity which sees no sign of ending.

To affect fundamental changes to the long-standing norms of our education system “stake-holders”, such as parents, teachers, employers and students themselves, all have to be persuaded and cultural and social norms changed. Change would have to start in the Junior years of secondary education and not simply in the final two years of the school cycle. The law of inertia is usually stronger than disruptive reform.

The president of the Royal Society envisions a period of 10 years to effect such radical change. In fairness, recent governments have made some progress – the introduction of apprenticeship schemes, for example, has real potential for expansion and integration into the current university degree offering. But uptake has been slow and the present governments fatally distracted by Brexit as well as being cash-strapped; despite what a committee of MPs might recommend, it has little appetite for radical transformation of the status quo and few resources to invest in such a long-term project.

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Terry Jones taught History to adult students taking Foundation courses at a College of Higher Education prior to their entry into full-time degree courses at Warwick and Coventry Universities. Since taking early retirement, he has travelled widely in Eastern Europe, pursuing a life-long interest in 19th and early 20th century European history. He has been a GCSE and "A" level tutor with OOL since 1996.

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