The Spectator

Is now really the time to scrap A-levels?

The history of education reform is a graveyard of acronyms: TVEIs, GNVQs and so on. There have been many well-meaning initiatives that made sense at the time but struggled to gain acceptance. Rishi Sunak needs to proceed with caution before he launches into yet another reform of school qualifications, especially if it means the end of the only one that has stood the test of time: the A-level.

The Prime Minister’s concern – shared by many educationalists – is that A-levels are too narrow and specialised and lead to too many people entering adult life lacking adequate literacy and numeracy skills. In the Survey of Adult Skills conducted by the OECD, England not only scored poorly in literacy and numeracy; it was also the only country where 16- to 24-year-olds performed less well than 55- to 64-year-olds in both. It is a rather damning indictment of the past 40 years of school exam reforms.

This isn’t really about pupils. It’s about political posturing

In fact, A-levels were introduced in 1951 with the aim of avoiding premature specialisation in the sixth form. Yet Britain is now nearly alone in the developed world in not making literacy and numeracy compulsory subjects up to the end of the school years. There have been various attempts to broaden education, such as the introduction of AS-levels, which it was hoped would lead to more students studying four or five subjects in the lower sixth.

But not only have AS-levels fallen into obscurity; the average number of A–level subjects taken is now decreasing. Seven years ago, 7.6 per cent of A-level pupils studied four subjects. By 2020 that had fallen to 4.4 per cent. Pupils are told by universities they are judged only on the top three.

As a result of the recent grade inflation (whereby A*s and As were given to the top 44 per cent of entries, later lowered to 27 per cent), the system looks a mess. But this is precisely why governments should act with caution when intervening in education. The best-laid plans too often go awry – and when they do, schoolchildren are the victims. Pupils should not be used as lab rats in a political experiment.

Education reform has inflicted huge damage in Scotland, where the SNP imposed the much-mocked ‘curriculum for excellence’. It has become a case study in how a reputation for excellence in schooling, built up over generations, can be quickly destroyed. Keir Starmer is itching to get his hands on the school curriculum with his idea of ‘oracy’. This for him is an election narrative: that the Sunaks of this world are taught how to debate in their fancy schools, while a Labour government would teach this to every child.

Oracy is a pet subject of Tony Blair’s former adviser, the headteacher Peter Hyman. It was deployed in Hyman’s School 21 and the results were less than inspiring. School 21 suffered a double-downgrade in its Ofsted report from ‘outstanding’ in 2014 to ‘requires improvement’ in 2023. If oracy didn’t work in a pilot scheme, why roll it out nationally? But this isn’t really about pupils. It’s about political posturing.

Sunak is quite right to say that English sixth-formers receive too little tuition and that it’s a shame they have to narrow their options at the age of 16 by choosing just three A-levels. But this is something that should be put out to consultation, so that the pros and cons can be carefully considered.

What Sunak seems to be proposing with the ‘advanced British standard’ qualification is another attempt at a British baccalaureate, aping the International Baccalaureate (IB). This consists of a core of compulsory subjects together with a choice of courses from six subject groups as well as an extended essay on a subject of the pupil’s choosing. But if the IB is such a good thing, why not simply allow schools to choose whether they want to offer it? More than a hundred schools already do so, after all. The IB has the advantage of international recognition – an important factor in a world where the workforce is increasingly mobile. It is also based in Switzerland and therefore immune to political interference.

To create an English version of the IB (the existing ‘English baccalaureate’ is a misleading name given to a collection of GCSEs), and to expect all schools to transfer to it in one go, would cause huge practical problems. Given that there is already a shortage of maths teachers, how would schools find the extra staff? The Tomlinson report, commissioned by the Blair government to look into exam reform, proposed replacing A-levels, GCSEs and vocational qualifications with a single diploma. The reforms were to be phased in over a decade, but in the end the whole idea was dropped. 

How to deal with vocational education is especially difficult when you consider how many attempts to rationalise the system have come and gone. The government’s latest idea – T-levels – have not really bedded in yet. The encouragement of apprenticeships has stalled, too, with few small firms able to offer the kind of placements that would meet the requirements.

All told, this is an unusual mission to choose in a pre-election year: it is the kind of long-term project that might be undertaken by a new prime minister soon after a landslide majority. Sunak is, to state it mildly, not in that position. So his A-level reform should be seen as the beginning of a conversation. For the sake of pupils who have suffered too much disruption in recent years, exam reform should be conducted with the greatest care.