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A Level 2: Return of the Essay

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.

11 comments to A Level 2: Return of the Essay

  • I sat my A-Level examinations in 1996. At that point we [the students] were well aware that whilst the examination papers placed before us were significantly easier than the equivalent exam a decade ago, they were almost unrecognisable compared to the exams of our parents generation. Whilst there may be common agreement with this point (that standard have dropped) what is less commonly noted is the huge variance in standards across exam boards. Comparing examination papers (inc Physics, Economics, Pure Mathematics, Geography) from 4 different exam boards it quickly became apparent that the gold standard could be had for much less effort in certain parts of the country (i.e. within certain exam board areas). What puzzled us (as 18 yr old students desperately looking for an angle to excuse our lack of preparation) was ‘if it is so obvious to us that there are massive inequity’s in the standards set by different boards – surely the university admissions tutors would be aware of this?’ Not a chance. The people who were aware were the 6th form masters at enterprising colleges who ‘cherry picked’ examination boards to ensure that their pupils had the best opportunity to maximise their results. Whilst some of you may applaud such entrepreneurial activity on the part of the 6th form master it is a bit of a bugger if you happen to be stuck in a state school with a less aggressive approach to maximising its pupils results. The only way to combat this fog of double gold-standards and to restore a little vigour as surely (as the article implies) a complete de-regulation of examinations. Only then will we have schools (and one would hope by some extension parents) free to choose what examinations their pupils sit. It would allow employers and educational institutes (the prime consumers of exam results) to indicate what type of examination they find useful (I can imagine the top 10 maths & science departments agreeing very quickly upon which examinations they would expect their candidates to sit.) It wold also encourage competition and vigour in a sector that seems to provide a new display of incompetence each summer.

  • ian

    I took my ‘O’ levels in 1963. At that time even as 15/16 year old kids we knew that some Exam Boards were much harder than others. Comparing my ‘O’ levels with GCSE in about 2000, it was clear that some subjects – science and languages in particular – were at a much lower standard than my O levels. Some however were higher – history and geography in particular seemed to be much more ‘investigative’ than when I studied them when a good memory got you a long way.

    In 1963, there was also a great deal of concern that literacy standards of students taking science subjects was falling. A test called Use of English was introduced, which was in practice as much about logical thinking and expression as grammar which had to be taken by all school students concentrating on the sciences.

    I’m pretty sure that standards have changed significantly compared to the standard in place in 1963. What I am less sure about is if that change is a change for the worse or just different. I regret the move away from essays as a means of investigating understanding, but I worry slightly that I may be being a bit old fogyish in decrying any change.

    I certainly think the narrowing of the curriculum is a huge mistake – when I took my O levels I had to study english, history, geography and a language, regardless of what my selections were – in my case a focus on science. When I took my (science) A levels I still had to take classes in music, history, art, classical studies, German. I could have taken Russian, geography, economics

    Some A level subjects I think are simply silly at that level – Law and Psychology for example require a much more adult understanding than the average 17 year old can bring to bear. Subjects like Media I have mixed feelings about. I see no reason why media in general – which has a huge impact on our daily lives – should not be subjected to the same rigorous analysis as English language and literature. Unfortunately I see little evidence that it what is actually happening.

    In general I don’t think the position is anything like clear cut. There are new skills needed and we do need to change the curriculum to deliver them. I’m not convinced that parents – at least not the parents I met at PTAs etc – know how to do that any more than politicians or indeed teachers. Allowing schools to pick the exams for a given student rather than for the school as a whole would be a good start though.

  • Interesting stuff above.

    What actually seems to be required, for both university entrance and employment, is some ranking of the population of applicants.

    One way of doing this is to (just) report ones placing in the ranking, for example as in being in the top percentile, decile, quartile, etc.

    [In suggesting this, I am avoiding the undoubtedly difficult issue of normalisation between different subjects and exam boards. But I view that as a secondary part of the solution, and no different from now. What this approach does is remove the need to attempt normalisation between years.]

    Best regards

  • Johnathan

    Dan, great comment but could you break up your paragraphs so it is easier to read? My eyesight cannot cope!

  • Paul Marks

    The Daily Telegraph (no I can not remember the day) recently quoted (by name) academics at both the University of York and University College London as saying that even an “A” grade in A level mathematics does not mean that a student knows anything about maths.

    Instead of a two year course in mathematics with an examination at the end where there was no real way to be sure what the questions would be (so a basic understanding of maths had to be taught – so the pupils could work things out) the modern A level is split into “modules”.

    A bit of mathematics is examined every so often (as the course goes along) with fairly predictable questions.

    So teachers drill their pupils to pass each module and at the end the pupils can get a high grade without actually knowing anything about maths.

    Mathematics is the classic “straight” subject, if the modernizers have done this to maths (and they have) is it any surprise that they have messed up the humanities and social sciences?

    As for essays: Well I have seen A level pupils (both “AS” and “A2”) being told, by their teacher, what the conclusions of their essays should be.

    This was not done in a hole in the wall type way – it was quite open.

    “This is the sort of question you will be set and this is what the examiners will be looking for”

    “Here is a marking scheme – mark each other’s essays”.

    “Remember the examiner may know little about the subject – so stick to what you have been taught to write”.

    So lots of people get a high grade – and the whole exercise is not worth a cup of warm spit (to be polite).

  • Julian Morrison

    The market will take over, I think, and preempt the Conservatives or whoever. With a viable and better alternative to A-level available, which idiot would willingly sit the dunce exam, and be labelled for life? What loving parent would permit it? If state schools can’t teach it, private cram schools and exam halls will spring up to meet the need. But quite likely, the public pressure on the government will force it to concede.

    Watch for an attempted end-run: an attempt to reinsert politicized editorial control (in the name of “the national curriculum”) as a condition of allowing state school access.

  • Francis

    I am doing A-levels this term and I can tell you that they are not easy. Indeed, AS levels are in a way harder than the A2 level. The reason for this is that, whereas it is quite easy to get an A (I took 3 A-levels a year early and got AAB), those who want to go to Cambridge (and some Oxford colleges with more to follow next year) have to submit all module marks. Surely the other’s will do the same in the near future. Thus, those in their lower sixth are aiming for a mark way above the A-grade boundary (280/300 in all four AS’s was the figure I was told many times). However, now I am in the upper sixth, I am aiming for ‘just’ A’s (four in all, including the one’s I took last year) in order to go up to Oxford next year.

  • Paul Marks

    Both Oxford and Cambridge used to have an an entrance examination and, if they wish to be taken seriously as universities, they will have to reintroduce one.

    Of course, this may well mean opting out of the state system (i.e. rejecting government funding and resorting their independence), but they should do that anyway (not just on moral grounds – but to avoid all the insane regulations, “targets” and other such).

    As for “A” levels – I do not agree with Tomlinson’s (spelling alert) alternative to them (although his attack on the present state of Advanced G.C.E. study makes a lot of good points), but an alternative to them is already in use in some schools – the International Bachelorate (spelling alert).

    I think it is flawed in one important respect. The I.B. demands a wide range of knowledge in various sujects – but what of the student who is interested in a few subjects (and could make a real contribution in work on these subjects) but is not interested (or any good) in the other subjects the I.B. demands? Should such a subject just be tossed on the rubbish heap?

    On Francis’ point:

    Yes I did imply that A levels were easy and they are not – so I must apologize to you.

    However, (I bet you knew a “however” or a “but” was comming) “A” level study does not really measure understanding of a subject – and that is what it used to be for.

    Think about someone who works really hard at say history – I have just said that they work “really hard”, and (hopefully) their hard work will be rewarded by a good grade.

    The problem is that at the end of two years study they do not actually know much about the period they were studying or how it fits in to the story of the human race.

    Actually (to carry on with the example of history) “A” level work used to be much less hard than it is now.

    There were no great projects and presentations and marking each other’s essays (and so on and so on) that modern students have to do.

    It was basically a matter of reading a few books and thinking (a lot of quiet thinking) – hardly “work” (as a modern person would understand it) at all.

    A history teacher was not there to “deliver a course”, he (and it normally was a “he” in those days) was there to debate with the students.

    “What should so and so have done in X situation?” – “Well he should have done ……. Sir” – “Nonsense, you have forgotten…..” – “No I have not Sir – but it does not apply because ……….”

    A boy or girl who did not know their stuff (know enough to argue back) had no place in an “A” level class at all.

    One studied a period (and how events fitted in to the general story of humanity) and almost all study was (as I have said) a matter of privately reading books and thinking about them (something that one had started to do long before the course started).

    The sort of thing that is now drilled into students (with great effort on their part I am sure) is the sort of thing that everyone would have been expected to know before the course started.

    After all at the start of “A” level course a boy or girl was normally 16 and had studied “O” level history. And in any case a child interested in history (as I was) would have been reading works on history (stories about the past) from as soon as they had learnt to read.

    For a child of a scientific (in the sense of the physical sciences) turn of mind, “A” level study might have been formal, but basic knowledge would be assumed to have been learned long before 16.

    A young chemist or physicist might not do as much hard work as a student of these subjects would do now – but this is because they already knew the basic information.

    Nor was producing lots of neat work very important any way (in fact this was considered “girly” which, I am sorry to say, was an insult).

    The hero was someone who produced no work at all for two years (and was often canned for not producing any work) and then got an “A” in the examination (in whatever subject) because they had a real understanding of their subject (whatever it was) – an understanding that would stay with them (and be developed) for the rest of their lives.

    Although it may be hard to believe, the teachers themselves (the ones that did the hitting – the “child abuse” in modern language) admired this sort of pupil above all others – especially if such a pupil argued back well in lessons.

    Modern Britain is full of hard work. Managers produces endless reports (they stay up to the early hours writing them and go to endless meetings) and companies are very badly run. Civil Servants produce even more reports (and sometimes have nervious brakedowns – because they work so hard these days) and government departments are a total mess.

    It did not used to be like this (not the delusions of age – it really did not). People did not use to work half as hard as they do now – and things went much better.

    All they basically did was to think about what should be done (if anything) and then do it (if something needed to be done).

  • Paul Marks

    Well I wrote a comment – but it has been held up by “smite control”. Hopefully it will turn up in due course.

  • ian

    My science A levels in 1965 included significant amounts of new material contrary to the assertion by Paul Marks above. So far as I can tell, science A levels today cover nothing like the same ground.

    As an example my Physics A level covered issues like the flow of liquids and gases in pipes – very complex because of friction, turbulence, viscosity etc and much much more complex than the very simplified versions studied at O level or in Mechanics as a part of maths (where minor things like friction were ignored). I don’t think this is taught in schools at all these days – and even at University probably only turns up in engineering courses.

    I still believe that the situation is not so simple as presented. In part this is because as I said above, needs change, but also because the order and manner in which things are taught also changes. Some concepts I dealt with in A level maths were introduced to my daugher at junior school – not of course to the same rigour, just the concept.

    It is very easy to fall into fogyish complaints based on things being different.

  • Dubois

    I apologise for sounding like a relativist here, but the new A-levels are not harder than the old ones, but they are very different. A reasonably hard working student with a cynical/realistic teacher that would get a “C” under normal circumstances can get an “A” by drilling exam technique. This does take away from genuine learning of the subject in the old-fashioned liberal meaning of the phrase, but does mean a great deal to the individual student when applying to University, and a lot to the teacher with his/her eye on the “value added” marks.

    The drawback of this technique is that lazy students who might just get a “C” otherwise by remembering a few things passively sink to the depths of an “E” or “U”, but if they’re lazy, tough. Modern life is about dealing with pointless tasks set for no real reason except to measure the unmeasurable. In that sense the new A-levels are a great introduction to life beyond school.

    Returning to my original point, with the time taken over retakes and exams every few months, and repetitive drilling being a guaranteed route to success, the new A-levels are harder, just not academically harder.

    Also, if I can comment as a former A-level department head, it is not quite so simple as to say some exam boards are easier than others. If you do the maths, some exams boards in some subjects make it easier for naturally intelligent students to get good grades while making it harder for their slower comrades to get anywhere. Others make it easier for the poor ones to raise themsleves to a “C” and make it harder for the brigther ones to get higher than a “B”.

    If A-levels were more effective at demarcating the inteliigent and/or hard working from the slackers, this would have a beneficial knock on effect on the standards of university education.