A Levels system isn’t preparing pupils for university or life – academically or emotionally
Educators are all servants to the future - an imagined place where our efforts will have helped young people lead a better, more fulfilled, more complete life. And yet school can sometimes leave us feeling satisfied with fixing the small stuff, but too tired and busy to engage with more fundamental questions about why we’re here.
Are we here to ensure our students are well-rounded citizens, ready to participate in and contribute to society, with the skills to navigate a complex world for the better? Are we here to help young people learn the social and emotional literacies they will need to build productive, successful relationships with others? Do we have grander visions of making the world a better place? Or are we here just to pass exams?
A Levels: A rigid school system
For the sake of all the young people we want to support, we should make the time to ask about the purpose of school and exams.
Let’s start with the simplest of questions. Does your school have a mission statement? This is not a motto, or some nebulous, aspirational quotation, but a clearly defined raison d’etre that informs everything else you do. If you do, then it will inform learning outcomes, will provide a definition of learning that frames instruction, and will frame decisions about your choice of post-16 curriculum. Does your post-16 examination system align with your purpose?
If you are an A Level school, do you believe these examinations meet your purpose? I would guess not, because your dedicated staff are trying to build for an imagined future and will have much wider aspirations for their students than simply good examination results. I would go further and say that any moral purpose you might have will have been necessarily compromised to accommodate a vision of learning which has been narrowed to a syllabus defined by a commercial examination provider.
One A Level provider, AQA, has no mission statement at all. It does say their ‘qualifications give all students the opportunity to show what they can do and progress to the next stage of their lives’, which is another way of saying it’s just a means to an end. It’s hardly an inspiring, purposeful call to the future.
In England and Wales, at key stage 5, a combination of factors - a lack of clear purpose (beyond the tyranny of results), the reverence that surrounds traditional A-Levels, and poor incentives for change - mean students are pushed through a narrow choice of examinations. The norm elsewhere in the world is very much a broad, balanced education, which maintains specialism and depth, but does not allow students to stop acquiring key skills at 16. The purpose of a baccalaureate-style education begins to go beyond university entrance, and to start addressing essential life skills.
The IB: A flexible enquiry-based approach
But there are alternatives to A Levels in England and Wales. I lead an International Baccalaureate school and the IB Diploma has a clear purpose - ‘to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.’ That’s something I can get behind - it gives some shape and meaning to that imagined future I’m preparing students for. It aligns with our school mission: we have a shared moral purpose.
Like most baccalaureate-style programmes, the IB leaves no essential skill behind. It is a six subject diploma, allowing for breadth and depth, while still offering students the opportunity for specialisation. But it goes beyond this, because examinations alone cannot provide everything young people need for university and for life.
The IB has a standalone independent research component: a 4,000 word paper on an inquiry topic of a student's choice. Most university undergraduates aren’t asked to do this much until their third-year thesis. And no matter how successful a student is in their IB examinations, the diploma is not awarded if they fail to complete a service component, which pushes young people out into the world to confront inequalities and injustice, to be a part of a solution, to learn practical compassion, and find our about themselves and their place in the world.
Every student must follow a critical thinking programme that explores different knowledge systems; diverse methods of inquiry, from different times, places and cultures. It takes the personal and shared aspects of knowledge - how we understand the world - and investigates the relationships between them, while aiming to develop self-awareness and a sense of identity. How cool is that if you aspire to build intercultural understanding?
The IB, and many other similar systems, maintain internal assessment across all subjects, offering students the opportunity to learn skills that all employers (and universities) demand. Properly constructed coursework teaches students how to be self-starters; to be able to plan and manage long-form projects; to collaborate with others productively to co-create, own and and share knowledge; and to be able to transfer key skills across different disciplines. A Levels have abandoned these essential skills.
And if you are still wedded to examinations - and there is no arguing that performing under pressure, applying skills and knowledge to a deadline, is a key skill - then the IB, like its confrères around the world, concludes with an examination session that is every bit as academic as A Levels.
The English Baccalaureate, at 16, recognises the principle of a broader education, but it’s little more than giving a name to qualifications that universities have long asked for. So, A Levels hang on, possibly because no-one has the will to cut them down. That’s a very poor excuse to give the young people who must suffer their inadequacies.
*An extended version of this article was written for The Teaching Times and can be found here.