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25 June 2001

Test, test and test again

Making students do more than three subjects at A level was a good idea. But the obsession with totti

By Bill Greenwell

About 12 years ago, I won a few quid in a Times Educational Supplement competition with the satirical suggestion that there would be a 2+ examination. This was intended to be a joke about the introduction of national testing at 7, 11 and 14, as well as 16. Since then, however, a form of testing has been introduced in nursery education, and now every newspaper reports that new exams for 17-year-olds, called AS levels, cause tremendous pressure. The students can’t do sport. They can’t join clubs. More means less.

AS levels were designed to add extra subjects to the post-16 curriculum. Our system of grabbing a trio of A levels (or a brace, in many cases) and describing ourselves as “educated” has been recognised as a farce for ages. They were trying to reform it in 1973, when I became a teacher, with a system called “Q and F”. Then came “N and F”; then came “I” level; then came the Higginson report, which suggested greater breadth and, by implication, a baccalaureate system on Continental lines; and then there was the original AS system, which never quite caught on; and now there is “Curriculum 2000”, which is what the current fuss is all about. (If an A level is a pint of strong beer, the old AS was half a pint of the same. A new AS is half a pint of shandy, in preparation for the stronger half.) None of the proposals except the new one has actually happened, and the new one is a mishmash.

Yet there is a strong case for reform, and we need only look at the Scottish system, or at Continental models, to see that a broader system with more student-teacher contact is a perfectly reasonable proposition. Our problem is that we are English and, ergo, that we are sentimentalists. We don’t want centimetres, we want inches; we don’t want euros, we want pounds (we probably want ten-bob notes and threepenny bits); and we want O levels and A levels, because they were the good old gold standards. We have politicians in office who gained – or, in John Major’s case, wished he’d gained – these baubles. Not until we have leaders with GCSEs, nasty agglomerations of initials though they are, will this change.

In education, the sentimentalist has a terrifying ally: the bureaucrat. Kenneth Baker harnessed bureaucrats in the 1980s and set them to work, churning out monstrous amounts of jargon, all more impenetrable than the insurance documents issued by building societies, and all of them obsessed with measurement. And it is this that has crippled the A-level system – not the laudable desire to broaden, but the absolute obsession with totting up marks. The exam boards cannot find enough markers to mark the volume of stuff to be measured. What I hope Estelle Morris, the new Education Secretary, will discover is that it is not AS levels themselves that have driven teachers and students spare. It is the examination regime they have brought with them (including a great piece of edu-speak, the synoptic module, which sounds like something in need of surgery).

Thus, a student taking four AS levels (normal) will spend about 20 hours in examination halls, sometimes replacing a few of these hours with coursework (an underrated motivator of creative thinking). He or she will also be attempting “key skills portfolios” and/or tests in communication, “application of number” and IT. Three A levels in the second year will add a further 15 hours. More ambitious students will spend over 40 hours being tested.

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The problem with the original idea was that AS was also supposed to be a sort of 17+ for students who left early, unqualified. You would have thought that a single project, or even examination, would have been enough. But no, the sentimentalists want the old-fashioned sweat in the summer invigilation halls (which there aren’t enough of), and the bureaucrats have obliged by devising a whole series of brain-boggling tests. Further education colleges (but not school sixth-forms) are given money on condition that students take these tests and key skills. Yet private schools can opt out of the lot, more or less. In the meantime, the universities, a few diligent admissions officers excepted, have let it be known that they don’t give a monkey’s about AS, or key skills, and that three A levels will be very nice, thank you. The universities, sentimentalists themselves, are familiar dogs in the educational manger.

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A sensible system would be the bacca-laureate system, where students have to take five or six subjects and are expected to reach a certain standard in the lot (even if baccalaureate strikes me as a bit on the posh side in the terminology department). That would allow students to see the whole as a sum of parts. Instead, we have a daft cafeteria system, a pick’n’mix emporium in which it is impossible to calculate value, and in which the debate is therefore spuriously about value. We also have a chaos of sub-systems, in which there are tactical decisions that students take all the ASs and A-levels in one big 35-40 hour binge at the end, which means the debate is all about tactics. We could simply have a mandatory four-A-level system, in which students would obtain some brief certification at the halfway stage, ideally through some coursework, before proceeding to some final assessments. And could this system be uniformly imposed, please, without opt-outs for the richer clients?

Or if not, perhaps the makers of three-inch pieces of string should float on the stock exchange, and we could all share in their bonanza. Because someone out there is making it big in string and lined paper, and there are calluses on the hands of invigilation agencies from rubbing with such glee. These are testing times, after all.

Bill Greenwell is head of performing arts, languages, English and IT at Exeter College, Exeter