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GCSEs and A-levels: over twenty years of sustained improvement?

    For the 29th year in a row, the results of A-level students have improved. 44.7 per cent of students now get A* or A in A-level Maths; 57.7 per cent in Further Maths. Next year, a 6 year old will begin studying for the same course. In all, 27 per cent of the 867,317 A-level entries in the UK got A or A* grades and the excellent grades mean that 200,000 will miss out on university places this year. Record results - for the 24th consecutive year – were also seen in GCSE performance. 23.2 per cent of entries get A* or A grades, and the entries obtaining A* to C grades increased again to just under 70 per cent.

    Statistics like these should thrill us. The evidence suggests our education system has shown sustained improvement across the last three decades. More young people than ever are obtaining top grades and the competition for university places is fierce. But deep down, we all know that these grades have become increasingly unreflective of the fruits of our education system. International comparisons suggest that our educational standards relative to other countries are deteriorating. If we take this as given, then the debate about A-levels and GCSEs classically centres on whether exams are really getting easier.

    When graded A-levels were first introduced in 1963, grading occurred by awarding the top A grade to the top 10% of students, B to the next 15%, C to the next 10% etc with 20% being awarded Ordinary level and 10% failing. This simple method was abandoned as it became clear that there was no way of actually reviewing national standards over time. By introducing grade standards which stood over time, genuine improvements or worsening standards could be tracked – or so it was thought.

    It’s now clear that a combination of easing of course structure and greater use of teaching to test have combined to produce ever increasing grades with no time-consistent standard. Schools are largely judged on the results in both GCSEs and A-levels, putting enormous pressure on teachers to seek to maximise their students point scores. Competition between exam boards for enrolment means that schools are incentivised to choose the board for which good results are most likely, creating a natural downward pressure on the difficulty of the exams. Furthermore the introduction of modular methods of teaching, which allow multiple re-sits, and a proliferation of new subjects, were always likely to bump grades.

    None of this, of course, is the fault of students or teachers, who have become particularly adept in producing the best results from the given system. But the introduction of the A* grade first at GCSE and now A-level shows an acceptance that the system is failing to differentiate effectively between students.

    I saw during my time at Sixth Form a clear example of a course getting easier. My A-level Maths was structured into six modules across two years: three in pure mathematics, and three in optional units. A year in, we were told that the course structure would be changing so that the three pure Maths modules would be stretched across four modules, meaning only an additional two modules would have to be sat to make up the A-level. This meant that the same material which previously made up half of an A-level now accounted for two-thirds.

    It’s important not to take away from some genuinely fine exam achievements. But as the dust settles, it’s time to examine how the credibility of the school exam system can be restored. In my view, there aren’t many problems with the structures that lie behind the GCSE and A-level systems as they were originally constructed (excusing the current ability to re-sit). Sitting exams which cover two year courses at both 16 and 18 is perfectly reasonable – and the specialisation at A-level often welcome. But it's clear that something must be done to prevent the school system from becoming a devalued accreditation service.

    With this in mind, the CPS will in the coming months publish ideas on an alternative to GCSEs - the iGCSE – and how this can be incentivised. With A-levels, there appears to be a rather more obvious and neat solution. Why not give a universities board ultimate oversight for setting and marking exams? They have no incentive to inflate grades, and would desire a rigorously differentiating exam structure in order to make their own selection procedures easier. They could be granted the power to decide on the appropriate UCAS scores associated with different courses and would be independent of political pressures. What’s more – we could rid ourselves of the A-level exam board ‘industry’ in one swoop!

    I’m no education expert – so feel free to point out any obvious flaws in this plan. I would be very interested to hear your views on the wider issue.

    Ryan joined the Centre for Policy Studies in January 2011, having previously worked for a year at the economic consultancy firm Frontier Economics.

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