Resits undermine A-level standards

Allowing students to resit examinations favours more affluent students and turns grades into questio

This year's A-level results -- "record", once again -- will doubtless reignite the annual discussion around a decline in standards. It's a debate that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has pre-empted with his proposal to scrap modular A-levels and revert to linear courses, in an effort to restore the "gold standard".

While there very clearly is a problem with the current system, hence the need for introduction of the A*, reverting to linear A-levels would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Both teachers and top universities have repeatedly said that resits, not modular exams, are the major cause of grade "inflation".

Modular A-levels can be fit for purpose, in terms of learning and as indicators for universities, if resits are scrapped.

A survey by Civitas last summer revealed extraordinarily high levels of resits happening at A-level -- and their significant impact. A nationwide sample of 150 heads of sixth form was asked to estimate how many resits their last A-level cohort had sat. Seventy-one per cent of teachers judged that over 50 per cent of the entrants at their school had done at least one retake during their A-levels. Sixty-nine per cent of teachers then estimated that over 50 per cent of these students had gained a higher overall grade as a result of resitting.

In short, the impact of resitting is huge. And all-importantly, the bulk of resits are on the less challenging AS papers, rather than the more in-depth A2 papers. Overall grades are being boosted by performance on easier content -- providing a potentially misleading picture of students' grasp of a subject.

A large number of teachers interviewed expressed grave concerns about resitting -- concerns based primarily on three problems. The first was that, because of the misleading picture conveyed by resitting AS exams, universities are having to set their own tests in order to identify students' true levels. As one West Midlands head of sixth form put it:

They [students] go to the wrong universities due to resits: if they retake lots of times they bump up their mark, but if they can't even do an AS first time round how are they fit for university?

The second concern was that a key function of the modular system -- continuous assessment and thereby continuous motivation -- was being eroded by the opportunity to resit. "If they couldn't do resits students would work harder and do better the first time," commented a head of sixth form in London.

The third, and perhaps most concerning, issue raised was the potential inequity of the resits. While resits line the pockets of exam boards, the cost for students potentially allows schools with a more affluent intake to take more resits, and therefore get better results. As one head of sixth form in East Anglia commented:

Resits are inequitable; there are financial implications with the resits, can they stump up the cash?

Cambridge University, which obviously has a vested interest in high-calibre A-levels, has defended the modular A-level. Its position is also that it is the resit, not modularisation, that is threatening standards. The benefit of the modular A-level is that it allows students to convey their knowledge and understanding of the course -- a desired outcome -- rather than their ability to perform in an exam.

Spreading assessment over four tests moves away from the "sudden-death" element of having all the exams at the end of the two years. However, resits have led to a scenario where all too often the entire focus of the course is preparation for examination. This turns grades into questionable indicators. So, rather than the dull and generalised lament about "standards", let's get on with addressing the specific weakness in hand.

Anastasia de Waal is director of family and education at Civitas.

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.