From my conversations with teachers of A levels before and after this year’s impressive results, it is clear that oceans of professional dedication goes into preparing, teaching and assessing students’ work so that they are primed and at their peak performance for their AS and A2 examinations. The record pass rate of 97.6 per cent of exam entries being awarded A to E grades – including an unprecedented 27 per cent achieving A grades – did not happen by accident.
According to the Association of Colleges, a third of all 16 to18-year-olds take their A levels in colleges, and last year the average point score for sixth-form colleges was 800.1, compared with 761 for maintained school sixth forms. There is no doubt that further education teachers are very successful at teaching A levels. And this is despite the double whammy of lower funding rates in further education (£4,631) than schools (£5,650), and higher levels of student deprivation in further education than school sixth forms. Sixteen per cent of 16 to18-year-old students in further education colleges and 10per cent of those in sixth-form colleges are from disadvantaged backgrounds, compared to only 7 per cent in school sixth forms.
Dr Stuart Emmerson , an elected member of IfL’s governing Advisory Council, is an A-level mathematics teacher at a sixth-form college in the Midlands where most A levels have a 100 per cent pass rate. He told me how he felt, the day before the results:
"I am apprehensive. I know that A-level teachers in colleges are always reflecting on and improving their teaching, and that is why results improve. But this year is especially challenging, as the A* grading is new, many A-level specifications changed, and there will be huge pressure on university places. Our teaching is so tightly planned and intense that it has been hard to catch up from losing just two days to the snow this year.
"I see that this year many young people who don’t quite get the grades to match their university offer will have a slimmer chance than in the past through clearing arrangements. Careers guidance will be to the fore for them, yet national advice is confusing – some recommend a gap year and work experience to broaden experience as good, while others advise against this, because university admissions will want subject knowledge to be current and so it's best to resit A levels.
"Teachers are nervous about the press too – if results are better than last year, then standards are questioned, but if they flatline or decline, then teachers are criticised. We must and do hold on to our pride as teachers doing a thorough and professional job, and we motivate each other and hold ourselves to account so we learn from the 2009/10 year. On Thursday, every teacher will be poring over and analysing results and for each student to see what we can learn and ways to improve further in our teaching practice. And we will celebrate the successes!"
Sam Alvarez, an IfL fellow, is a course leader for A-level accounting, economics, business studies and law at Sussex Downs College. These were her thoughts the day before the results came out:
"All my A2 students worked extremely hard in the build-up to their final exams, and I feel confident that their results will reflect their ability and their efforts. In my 10 years of teaching A levels, I have always found the results to be in line with my expectations, based on the students' ability and commitment to their studies. Those who are outstanding have got A grades and those who are average get C grades. I fully expect that tomorrow's results will not throw up any surprises. I have a few students who should get an A* – not an easy task, given that they have to get over 90 per cent on their last two papers.
"Things have changed over the years though, in that universities have increased their entry requirements. Universities that as recently as three years ago wanted three Cs are now asking for an A and two Bs, for example. As a result, students are setting their sights higher and working harder. I have always been keen to help my students achieve their goals, and encouraged them to come and see me for extra help whenever necessary. But in recent years, more and more students have wanted extra help, due to the increased demands of universities and employers.
"The upside is that this has enabled me to facilitate focused and purposeful revision sessions, where students work together to push each other forward. I have done lots of work with my students to help them develop their peer and self-assessment skills, predominantly to help them become more analytical and evaluative – skills that are vital in advanced level studies and beyond. Given their increased independence and responsibility for their own learning, development and progress, I believe they will have a very good idea of how they performed in their A levels. And for that reason I don't think they will be surprised by their results tomorrow either. Those with strong analytical and evaluative skills will get the A* they deserve."
It is wonderful that in 2010, the first year of the A* grade for A levels, for which students need to gain a consistent 90 per cent in papers, 8.1 per cent of A level students gained A* grades, higher than Ofqual's prediction of 7 per cent, based on the 2009 A-level results. .
In recent years, there has been steady increase in the number of A-level grades A to E achieved, from 95.4 per cent in 2003 to 97.5 per cent last year. During the same period, there was also a steady increase in the number of healthy births. In 2009, compared to 2003, an average of 43 more infants per 100,000 live births survived their first year. Health professionals, and especially midwives, are widely credited
with these improvements in healthy births, and it is noted that evidence-based midwifery professional practice has contributed to positive improvements, as supported by the Royal College of Midwives and others.
In further education, we have the best qualified generation of teachers, who are committed to ongoing professional development as part of being a member of their professional body, the Institute for Learning. Professional teachers have driven up A-level results through excellent teaching. Why, unlike in health, does high and loud praise for teachers not come easily in our sector?
I want to congratulate each and every FE teacher who has led the impressive improvements in young people’s achievements at A level. There it is – and without reservation.
This is the first year that young people have been awarded the new Advanced Diplomas, and our congratulations go to them and their teachers too. Provisional results from the show 95.5 per cent gained A* to E grades.
Please join me in praising the ‘captains of learning’ in further education – teachers who, despite odds more stacked against them than in schools, ensure their A-level and Advanced Diploma learners succeed.
Toni Fazaeli is the chief executive of the Institute for Learning (IfL), the professional body for teachers, trainers, tutors and student teachers across the further education and skills sector
Read other FE News articles by Toni Fazaeli: