With a monopolistic provider, divided into a number of exam boards, and facing the requirement of meeting the targets set by the government, the A-level is no longer perceived as the de facto ‘gold standard’. Now that the anecdotal tales of remedial lessons in grammar for first year students, and bullet point answers, private schools are searching for alternatives:
One of the most damning criticisms is that pupils can gain top grades in the exams by providing only “bite-sized” paragraphs of information or bullet points.
A grade has risen to 22.8 per cent, up from 11.9 per cent in 1991.
Some questions even tell candidates what they should mention in their answer. For instance, an English literature A-level question from a 2003 paper, in which pupils are asked to comment on a passage in Othello, goes on to say “in the course of your answer, look closely at the language, tone and imagery of the dialogue and comment on what the passage suggests about attitudes to Othello.”
A group of private schools and Cambridge Universities International Examinations are constructing a new exam, the Pre-U, based upon stronger syllabi and ensuring academic rigour through the teaching of essay techniques. The centralised state sector is unable to innovate and set up a new examination system due to the demands of the government for greater control over the education system. They can prevent students stuck with state schooling from participating in dangerous ‘improvements':
While the Pre-U will be available to state schools, they will effectively be barred from taking it up because it is unlikely to be included on the Government’s list of accredited qualifications.
Some state schools already complain bitterly that they cannot offer international GCSEs, which many believe are superior to normal GCSEs because they do not include coursework.
However, this new examination has stirred the civil servants to lift a pencil:
The criticism has led the Government to consider including tougher questions in A-level papers as part of its secondary education reforms, from 2008.
Would it not be a fitting amendment for the Tory party to champion the freedom to choose examinations, either at a parental or at school level? Perhaps, if the majority of parents vote for the ‘Pre-U’ or International GCSEs, the school should be forced to honour their wishes.