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.

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Carwyn Jones is preparing for a fight with the UK government

From Labour's soft-nationalist wing, Jones has thought carefully about constitutional politics. 

This week's 20th anniversary of the 1997 Yes vote on devolution in Wales was a rather low-key affair. But then while there are plenty of countries around the world that celebrate an Independence Day, few nations or regions around the world would make much fuss about "Partial Autonomy Day".

The most important single event of the day was, almost certainly, the address by First Minister Carwyn Jones at the Institute of Welsh Affairs’ 20th anniversary conference. The sometimes diffident-seeming Welsh Labour leader has rarely been on stronger form. Much of his speech was predictable: there were his own recollections of the 1997 referendum; some generous reflections on the legacy of his now-departed predecessor, Rhodri Morgan; and a lengthy list of identified achievement of devolved government in Wales. But two other features stood out.

One, which might have struck any observers from outside Wales was the strongly Welsh nationalistic tone of the speech. In truth this has long been typical for Jones, and was a very prominent element of the successful Labour general election campaign in Wales. A fluent Welsh-speaker and long a part of the soft-nationalist wing of Welsh Labour, the First Minister briefly considered what would have been the consequences of the achingly-close 1997 ballot having gone the other way. Wales, we were told, would no longer have had the right to be considered a nation – it might even (gasp!) have lost the right to have its own national football team. But this theme of the speech was also linked to devolution: why should Wales not have parity of treatment on devolved matters with Scotland?

The most striking feature of the speech, however, was the confidence and combativeness with which the First Minister set about attacking the UK government on constitutional matters. This territory has often appeared to be the area which most animates Jones, and on which he is most comfortable. He has clearly thought a great deal about how to protect and develop the constitutional status of devolved Wales. The First Minister was clearly deeply unimpressed by the UK government’s handling of Brexit as a whole, and he linked Brexit to broader problems with the UK government’s approach to the constitution. Brexit was declared in the speech to be the "biggest threat to devolution since its inception" – and the audience were left in no doubt as to where the blame for that lay. Jones was also clearly very comfortable defending the joint stance he has taken with the Scottish National Party First Minister of Scotland, in opposing the EU Withdrawal Bill and much of the UK government’s approach to Brexit negotiations. This high level Labour-SNP cooperation – extraordinary, given the otherwise utterly toxic relations between the two parties – was argued to be the necessary consequence of the UK government’s approach, and the threat of a power-grab by Westminster of powers that are currently devolved. 

Finally, the First Minister had one new card up his sleeve. He was able to announce a Commission on Justice in Wales, to be chaired by a figure of impeccable authority: the soon-to-retire Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, John Thomas. The clear intention of the Welsh government seems to be to use this commission to advance their agenda of a distinct Welsh legal jurisdiction. This is another matter on which there appears to be little current common ground with the UK government.

Carwyn Jones emerged from the general election as a greatly strengthened figure: having led the Labour campaign in Wales when it appeared that the party might be in difficulty, he deservedly accrued much political capital from Welsh Labour’s success in June. The First Minister has been thinking imaginatively about the UK constitution for some years. But for a long time he failed even to carry much of the Welsh Labour party with him. However, he succeeded in having many of his ideas incorporated into the Labour UK manifesto for June’s election; he is no longer a voice crying out in the wilderness. On the anniversary of devolution, Jones said little that was wholly new. But the combination of everything that he said, and the tone and confidence with which he said it, was striking. This was not the speech of a man looking to back away from a confrontation with the UK government. Wales seems up for a fight.

Roger Scully is Professor of Political Science in the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.