From education to employment

De-idolising the A level and its associated exam – Time for a rethink?

Claire Taylor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Education, Wrexham Glyndŵr University

The recent headline that teacher assessments are to be used in lieu of an algorithmic calculation of A level grades is to be welcomed.

After all, where best to look for sound predictions of pupil achievement than to the teachers themselves – those who have been working alongside their pupils, nurturing and facilitating learning over a significant period of time.

It’s fantastic that teacher assessment has been recognised as a valid way of assessing achievement for the ‘gold standard’ A level.

But why is this such a good thing?

Well, teacher assessment breaks through the shackles of narrow exam-based assessment which largely tends to test recall of facts (a shallow indication of learning) rather than drawing out the particularised learning strengths and rich experiences of individual pupils.

Teacher assessment also avoids the issue that has been exacerbated by this year’s A-level algorithm which has seen pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds more likely to have seen teachers’ grades revised downwards, because a school’s historic performance has been taken into account.

Clearly, prioritising teacher assessment means the focus is put fairly and squarely on the pupil and their own learning journey. If local moderation measures are put in place to mitigate potential teacher bias, then it does seem that teacher assessment is a far more reliable and fair way of assessing pupil learning.

So, teacher assessment is a good thing. But what if we went one step still further and re-imagined the A level itself?

Consider this: A level achievement tends to be reflected in knowledge-based examinations. Critics argue that despite being viewed as a ‘gold standard’ qualification by many,  the A level actually only ‘tests’ a fairly narrow knowledge base and does not really reflect the full breadth and depth of pupil learning.

The A level does rely to a great extent on the ability to regurgitate knowledge under stress, an effective exam technique and the ability to perform well at a specific time on a specific day under certain conditions. Is this really the best way to reflect pupil learning? Even more importantly, is the A level and its associated summative exam a truly equitable and accessible approach for all?

Clearly the answer to all of these questions is a resounding ‘no’ and that is why it is time to re-think our seeming over reliance on the A level as a measure of attainment. The exam-focussed A level relies on isolated, individual performance and skill in remembering large amounts of information. It does not really allow pupils to demonstrate understanding of a topic, or passion for a subject. It is a transactional qualification – and a means to an end in terms of university entry.

And yet, the A level is not even critical for university entry

Many applicants enter higher education with alternative qualifications to A levels. For example, BTECs, achieved through continuously assessed coursework, NVQs linked to national occupational standards….and of course life experience itself, or ‘prior experiential learning’. All are valid reflections of achievement for prospective university applicants from different contexts. Crucially, it is important to recognise that neither of these routes into higher education are more prestigious than others, rather it is critical that individual applicants are considered on their own merits.

That’s why contextualised admissions is so important for the UK university sector. Entering university is not just about getting the right A level grades – indeed this is a system that has all but crumbled in recent days and weeks.

Rather, taking the next step on the learning journey is different for everyone and universities have a huge responsibility to look at each applicant within their own context, considering educational, geodemographic, and socio-economic background data in the round.

Events of recent days have perhaps taken the gloss off the ‘gold standard’ A level; a narrowly focussed qualification, normally assessed only through examinations, and, I would argue, a poor indicator of pupil learning. It is therefore time to pause and take stock.

We now have an opportunity to de-idolise the A level and its associated exam, to embrace teacher assessment more broadly and to truly value the plethora of alternative approaches to capturing achievement and aspiration as we look to support more learners into higher education. 

Claire Taylor, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Professor of Education, Wrexham Glyndŵr University

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