The New A Levels

For teenagers across the United Kingdom, August is a month synonymous with the dreaded ‘results day’. This year, however, 200,000 students will wait more in limbo than ever, after sitting new A Level specifications. With students and teachers being left without study resources, and only vague specifications to follow, the exam regulator, Ofqual, finally decided to step in and lower the grade boundaries.

A Levels, the most common pre-university qualification taken in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, had been criticised in recent years for both the heavy coursework element, and recurring figures of a quarter of students receiving the top two grades, A or A* (equal to 80% or above.) As a response, this summer thirteen subjects were assessed by exam only, following reform by ex Education Secretary, Michael Gove. Yet very soon after the students took the new exams, it seems that the question of who would actually benefit from the fall in results came into mind.

Both schools and students expressed concerns that students will be punished as ‘guinea pigs’ for the new model, many failing to achieve the necessary grades due to insufficient resources for preparation. Moreover, with tuition fees rising – currently £9250 p.a. at most English universities – and a decrease in applications, it’s not just a matter of students worrying about their grades. In some cases, universities have even made unconditional offers before results day so as to guarantee numbers (and in turn finance through fee payment). Prior to 2013, this practise was highly uncommon, with less than 3% of applicants receiving unconditional offers. This has grown quickly since: around 8% of applicants in 2015 were made an early unconditional offer, and early suggestions from UCAS suggest the rate has increased this year. At the moment, the fall in results does not seem to be useful to neither the students nor the universities.

However, as problematic as the new reform might be, the subsequent response by Ofqual is equally questionable. The chief regulator, Sally Collier, explained the reasons for lowering the grade boundaries by saying that she ‘wants the message to be that students have done fantastically well’ and that ‘all our kids are brilliant’. This attitude is, at best, well intentioned, but at worst dangerous. Nobody benefits from being sheltered in the name of being ‘brilliant’. By linking a young person’s brilliance to three letters, regardless if those letters are As or Es, we risk a generation growing up scared to fail. While academic success is important, it’s not the sum total of your parts: if our education system focussed equally on character, maybe we wouldn’t be as scared to open our envelopes on results day.

With higher education becoming more market-based than ever; the wildly varying grade boundaries, and even chief markers wanting to tell us we’re ‘brilliant’, we have to wonder how much grades really matter… But with students and teachers under more pressure than ever, this reform seems to be a catch twenty-two with no winner in sight. Not the students; not the teachers, and not the universities.

[Amy Shimmin – @amylfc]

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