A-Level Reform: The Solution Must Fit The Problem

19th June 2012

In politics, in education reform, and in life it is too often the case that people come up with an idea first and then link it to a problem in order to justify its existence.  This bizarre behaviour confuses the people affected by the problem and the new announcements about A-Level reform have left me bamboozled for precisely this reason.

Earlier in the year a study by Ofqual and reported by the Telegraph found that “many university students struggled to structure an essay, use correct spelling, punctuation and grammar and carry out independent research after being “spoon-fed” through school.” These are arguably fair enough statements and I am certain the universities know what the issues are with their undergraduates (though I have argued before that some of it might be their own doing.)

What is not so clear is how deficiencies in essay writing and independent research will be met by the proposed reforms which are reported as including:

  • Scrapping exams at at the end of the first year of A-Level study (i.e. AS-Levels)
  • Reducing the number of times exams are re-sat
  • Having universities ‘sign off’ on the content of exams

Unless I have missed something fundamental, none of these appear to resolve the issue of poor essay writing, of independent research, or of being ‘spoon-fed’ which is a rather odd term but I think means ‘being taught exactly how to do exams’. If anything one might imagine that by having no AS exams the A-Level ones become much ‘higher stakes’ and hence spoon-feeding will become ever more prevalent.  It also doesn’t reflect the reality of universities where very few places assess entirely by end-of-course exams [in fact, the only one I know of is Oxford, I believe Cambridge has exams each year in most subjects].

One might argue that a positive outcome of including universities in A-Level content will be an insistence on more essays in A-Level exams. Currently most subjects have a mixture of shorter answer questions in AS exams with longer essays at A2.  By encouraging more essay questions – the theory goes – students will get better at writing essays.

There are two main issues with this claim. First, universities tend to assess via essays that students write independently and not under exam conditions. This involves finding information, synthesising it, and writing clearly by going through several re-drafts. This is not the same skill as bashing out a 45-minute handwritten essay, and merely upping the number of exam essays isn’t going to provide those important independent skills.  Secondly, the reason why A-Levels originally moved away from being a series of long essays was because that system encouraged candidates to memorise several ready-made answers in response to what was a fairly predictable carousel of essay questions.  Universities then complained that students arriving at university did not have the requisite critical and original thinking skills that they wanted.  Plus ca change.

This is not to say that scrapping AS-exams or asking for more essays is necessarily bad. For the record I think getting rid of January exams is a good idea. They are a logistical, financial and teaching nightmare. But what isn’t okay is to pretend that scrapping them (or summer AS exams) will somehow improve essay writing skills, because it won’t.

If your problem is a lack of essay writing skill and independent research then the answer is something along the lines of: “Include more coursework” or “make the Extended Project Qualification compulsory”. But if you hold universities in the highest regard – as this government continually says they do – and those universities tend to assess via independent research and spread their exams across a course then for the government to suggest A-Level students should be treated any differently seems both hypocritical and a failure to adequately fit the solution to the problem.