The abolition of A Levels

Sunak's planned Abolition of A levels, in favour of an 'Advanced Britsih Standard', seems deeply misguided. Wrong about maths, wrong about English, wrong to ban specialisation at 16. And wrong to launch at this stage of the electoral cycle.

With maths, the age to which one studies is simply the wrong variable to target/ change. English skills are not necessarily best developed by writing essays about novels, or by the formal study of linguistics. And specialisation not only facilitates mastery of detail, it allows people to drop subjects that they dislike, improving enthusiasm.

Maths teaching requirements should be defined by output (the level of mathematical understanding) rather than input (teaching until a particular age). Ruth Lawrence gained a first class degree in Mathematics from Oxford at 13, and had her DPhil by 17. Mandating post doctoral maths thereafter, until the age of 18, would be absurd. The problem with maths education in the U.K. is not that most pupils stop at age 16, but that too many stop before they understand numbers, areas, and compound interest. The problem is the 39% of pupils who fail GCSE maths, and they will not be helped by telling someone who got a 9 (A** in old money) in Maths & Further Maths that their sixth form studies must include yet more maths. Nor will those that failed GCSE be helped by another two years of the teaching that didn’t work between 14 and 16. The answer is probably to fire the Maths teachers whose pupils usually fail GCSE, and to pay enough to hire replacements able to kindle an enthusiasm for the subject.

Who could be against sixth formers improving their command of the English language? Exactitude, and the ability to avoid unintentional ambiguity, are splendid skills. But those with the best command of our language are often lawyers, and those who deal in ideas: philosophers, theologians, and historians. If you love novels and plays, by all means pursue English at sixth form. But if you are more interested in politics, or divinity, pursue them. Reading well written material that interests you, writing essays about subjects you care about, and having to defend what you have said in front of others, all serve to improve your command of the language. Telling a keen theologian that they have to study nineteenth century fiction, instead of what interests them, would be entirely counterproductive.

For some people, having to confine themselves to a mere three subjects for A level involves painful choices. I was not one of those people, being dyslexic, and pretty dreadful at foreign languages. Having to get a ‘C’ in French O level (necessary for university) was much more difficult than getting As in the subjects I liked. Being able to drop subjects was a joy. I take my hat off to polymaths who read Vitruvius in the original, design new buildings doing their own structural engineering calculations, and write sonnets to their spouse. But I am very grateful that the world allows me to jog along doing things that I find interesting, rather than making a big deal of the things at which I am useless. Equipping the state sector to offer IB, or similar, to those that want a broad based sixth form education, would be good. But to force those with niche strengths to take exams in areas of weakness is a step in the direction of judging a fish by its ability to ride a bicycle.

Even for those with a broad range of skills and interests, delaying specialisation comes at a price. Those whose degrees lead on to a career (which should not be all of them, let’s not lose sight of studying for its own sake, as consumption, rather than as an ‘investment’) will need to spend more time at university ‘catching up’ to the standard that A levels now provide. Mr Sunak claims that, by adding c200 hrs of extra lessons during sixth form, there will be no loss of depth. This is nonsense. A level courses are each a notional c425 hours of lessons. If that time is treated as sacrosanct for the ‘major’ subjects, then we are allowing only 50hrs per year for each of the ‘minor’ subjects that Sunak wants to add. 50hrs per year is not enough for a meaningful course, so expect the 425hrs to be eroded. Even without that erosion, the 200 hours of extra lessons don’t constitute extra time conjured from thin air, they are hours that could have otherwise been spent in a library studying for the three main subjects. No doubt the extra two minor subjects will also have their share of homework, again taking time away from the specialist subjects. There is no free lunch here: this is a trade off. It will suit some, but be a pain for others.

Since 1984 and Kenneth Baker’s national curriculum, U.K. state education has been ruined by a series of reforms driven by “This looks like a good idea, let’s make everybody do it!”. The path to hell, paved with good intentions, but still the path to hell. We need to stop being so prescriptive. If something really needs re-organisation (I suspect recruiting & retaining the right staff would be a better move), then, for the change to have a reasonable chance of success, it needs to be implemented at the start of an administration, by a minister who will be in post for at least the medium term. Sunak’s reform is due to go live in 10 years time, yet he is not bothering with a green paper, and wants to rush things through in the run up to a General Election that is unlikely to be a vote for continuity.

I would be interested to hear views in favour.

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