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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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.