What are school qualifications for?

I was perusing the news from Blighty last night and found this article on government proposals for reform of the A-Level (see also the ‘related articles it links to).  That’s the exam that students in the UK (excluding Scotland) do at the end of school (age 18) before heading off to university, to other training or into jobs.

The UK Education Secretary wants universities to have a much greater role in driving A-levels. He has concern that they are not doing what they should; that is, preparing students for university. The exam boards are failing to do their job in ensuring a quality qualification, and this role should be taken away from them. The perennial issue of grade inflation also rears its head – that’s where year after year the grades awarded to students get higher – some would say it’s because the teachers are teaching better – others that the exams are simply getting easier.

The  complaint about falling entry standards at university is common – if courses ran at the level of difficulty they did 20 years ago, with a similar amount of assumed knowledge, there would be a huge and unacceptable drop-out rate, therefore standards have to fall.

 The problem that I have with these articles and the debate in general is that so much of it is based on ideology. For example, ask yourself the following questions.

1. Should universities be there for the ‘elite’, or should they be open to all? And who should pay for them?

2. Is the purpose of an exam at the age of 18 to prepare a student for university, or is it to prepare him or her for the workplace, or for life, or what?

3. Should exams identify the performance of students relative to their cohort, or should they identify the absolute performance of the students (i.e. would it be acceptable for every student in an exam  to get a grade ‘A’ if they all were good students)? Are ‘grades’ the way to go anyway?

4. Who should have control of the examination process? Should it be the government (or their appointed agency), universities, professional bodies, employers, the teachers who teach the stuff?

I would suggest that the answer you’d give to these questions would to a great extent depend on your ideologies. Debating these are often pointless – no-one is likely to shift their position in a hurry. So the UK government says that A-levels are no longer up to the job of preparing students for university. But who says that this should be the job of the A-level? Ideology. Is grade inflation acceptable? Ideology again. Universities should drive school exams? More ideology.

Anyone who wades into this mire is going to have to expect trouble on many sides, and it’s no surprise the Education Secretary is getting it. A bit more open discussion might be a better approach, though I doubt this would change the general principle of "if you talk about school exams in any way, no matter what position you take, expect to greatly offend around 50% of your listeners".

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