A-levels results are out next Thursday and if recent history is a guide there’ll probably be another set of record grades.
While reforms to A-levels have pushed up grades in recent years, the changes introduced under Covid-19 restrictions in March 2020 allowed grade inflation to run seriously out of control. Now, with the credibility of the A-level under scrutiny as never before, some education professionals are calling time on the exam, asking for it to be axed rather than reformed.
When A-levels were introduced in 1951, it was only possible to ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. In 1963 the current grades of A to E came in. The system awarded the top 10% A grades, the following 15% a B, the next 10% a C, 15% a D and 20% an E, meaning every year 70% of candidates were guaranteed to pass. There was no chance of grade inflation with this method.
As social mobility increased from the 1950s onwards, so did the number of university entrants, effectively doubling from 200,000 in 1963 to 400,000 just seven years later.
With more students having the chance of a university education, it was felt that the arbitrary failure rate of 30% was unfair, so in 1987 a new criterion-based grading system arrived heralding the start of grade inflation.
While more top grades were being awarded, it was by no means all one-way traffic, with various efforts being made to keep grade inflation under control. For example, following sector consultations, Ofqual managed to argue against a “resit culture” that allowed pupils a second bite of the cherry and improved grades.
By 2019, when a sliver over 25% received the top grades, the Government looked like it was on the road to solving the problem. That was until Covid came along and grade inflation spiralled completely out of control.
In March 2020 Ofqual advised the Government that socially distanced exams would be the best way to provide a “valid qualification” and warned against placing too much store on teacher assessments.
However, concerns over schools’ varying responses to online teaching, and the anticipated reluctance of parents to send their children into schools to sit exams, ensured their cancellation.
Ofqual responded by developing an automated grading system that drew on teacher assessment but also ensured no excessive grade inflation. It was designed to counter teachers’ generosity in awarding the best grades and a statistical standardisation model was used that resulted in a very small number of anomalous outliers, identified at about 0.2%, that could be addressed by an appeals process.
But Ofqual’s much maligned model failed miserably to gain public confidence and the Government made an embarrassing U-turn, announcing that A-level grades in England would be based on teacher assessments alone.
The result was the most excessive grade inflation in the history of the A-level. The proportion of grades awarded at A and above rose from 25.2% in 2019 to a then all-time high of 38.1%. In 2021 teachers in England were again asked to grade their students and these marks were used, along with the results of mock exams and coursework, to determine a final award. The result was an even bigger jump in attainment, with an unprecedented 44.3% of A-levels graded as A or above, and nearly 70% at B and above.
So, with grade inflation running rampant, what’s next for the exam? Last September Ofqual’s chief regulator outlined its approach to the grading of A-levels and other qualifications in 2022, termed a “transition year”. The aim is to wind back the proportion of top grades awarded to pre-pandemic levels over the next two years, using 2022 as a mid-point, and for 2023 to reflect 2019’s results. Meanwhile, ministers have said that they intend to keep the option of teacher-assessed grades.
Regardless of whether or not these measures are considered adequate, they do nothing to address a growing feeling among educationalists that A-levels may no longer be fit for purpose.
In September 2020, ‘Rethinking Assessment’, a new group co-founded by Peter Hyman, director of a multi-academy trust dedicated to “changing the way we educate in the UK”, published an open letter in The Times arguing that A-levels should be abolished in favour of more holistic assessments.
The group, made up of educators from independent schools, state schools and universities, intends to pilot “workable and practical ideas in their schools to explore alternatives”.
The letter was signed by the heads of a number of leading schools, including Eton College, Bedales and St Paul’s Girls’ School. The letter said: “Many young people find the relentless practice for exams increasingly stressful; depression and self-harm statistics confirm this. The over-crammed curriculum on which tests are premised ensures ‘covering content’ matters more than a love for the richness of a subject.” The group argue for new assessments that rely more on teacher judgement and moderation.
Another organisation – The Regent Group - aims to teach A-levels in a new, technology-enabled environment. Made up of independent schools and sixth form colleges, the group commissioned its own report to investigate the impact of the pandemic and to identify any lessons learned that could inform the future of assessments and higher education admissions practices. Finding the same issues as the ‘Rethinking Assessment’ group, it would prefer all exams be completed digitally, including their submission and marking, and argues that future education reforms should adopt global best practice and innovative solutions.
The pandemic has served to highlight inadequacies in the current A-level system, giving us a generational opportunity once schools have navigated beyond 2023, to take on board all these lessons and bring in some real reforms. It is important that this chance is not squandered.
By Jane Tozer, a consultant at Paternoster Communications