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  1. Politics
20 August 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:14am

A-levels and predicted grades should be scrapped

The current system is elitist and outdated, and forms a barrier to social mobility.

By Richard Darlington

The week of A-level results has arrived. Yesterday was a day of both celebration and disappointment for hundreds of thousands of teenagers and parents across the country. But the system for filling university places is unfair, and the entry route — A-levels — elitist and outdated.

About half of all predicted grades are wrong, mainly overestimates, and often on behalf of students from more affluent backgrounds. Although we should pity the 3,000 straight-A students who have missed out on a place at their first-choice university, they are likely to land on their feet.

Instead, spare a thought for those young people who were underestimated by their teachers and have achieved better than their predicted grades. They will be forced into clearing by their teachers’ lack of faith in them. Roughly one in ten grades is under-predicted and students from poorer backgrounds are more likely to suffer.

Post-qualification application is complex and difficult to implement, but abolishing a system of predicted grades is vital to achieving the social mobility agenda that Nick Clegg is trying to advance.

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With record numbers applying, the government is cutting university places at the worst possible time. Instead, it should be demanding reform of the sector, with cheaper, rather than fewer degrees. Expanding university places does not mean that the training offered will be of lower quality. Running compressed, two-year degrees and expanding part-time courses so that students can learn while they earn would keep tax revenues rolling in and expand our workforce skills, boosting UK competitiveness. 

Instead, more than 170,000 students will go without a place this year: not because they failed to make the grade but because the government is deliberately cutting places ahead of the Lord Browne-led independent funding review publishing its findings. With record numbers applying (up 12 per cent on last year), the government should be expanding opportunity, not pulling up the drawbridge.

But A-levels and university degrees are not the only route to success. “Soft” skills are more important than ever. Empathy, sociability, confidence and the ability to network and work in a team make the difference both in getting a job and getting promoted. In just over a decade, these skills became central to life chances: for those who turned 30 in 2000, such character capabilities had become 33 times more important in determining earnings. 

Britain needs to get over its obsession with A-levels as the gold standard. Demos research shows that teenagers can boost their employability, income and well-being substantially by doing apprenticeships from age 16 instead of, or as well as, A-levels. In fact, the research sample showed that boys who did apprenticeships earned on average 7 per cent more by age 30 than those who did not — whether or not the non-apprentices had high academic qualifications. Those with GCSE grades A-C earned 9 per cent more than their untrained contemporaries who went on to do A-levels instead.

Yesterday, Clegg talked about attacking “the educational apartheid that currently exists between vocational and academic learning in general, and between further education and higher education in particular”. Will he follow this powerful statement with a commitment to expand the teaching of degree-level courses in FE colleges? Is the coalition bold enough to develop more higher education institutions that specialise in employer-designed vocational degrees and sub-degree-level qualifications?

The big issue of “parity of esteem” between vocational and academic qualifications is a long-standing issue, but the politics of curriculum reform are difficult. The only way you get vocational qualifications to have parity of esteem with academic ones is to ensure that all qualifications contain an element of both. So you can’t study engineering without also doing maths and you can’t study history without also doing IT. The mistake that Labour made in response to the Tomlison report was to leave open the option of an “academic-only” diploma route — in effect, a middle-class pathway around the reform.

As Anthony Seldon argued this week, A-levels are no longer fit for purpose. With independent schools increasingly turning their back on them in favour of the International Baccalaureate, pressure for free schools and academies to do the same will grow. That could lead to a two-tier system that would further disadvantage teenagers from poorer backgrounds and undermine the government’s social mobility aims.

A-levels should be scrapped and predicted grades consigned to history. Only through taking combined diplomas that include both academic and vocational study will teenagers acquire the skills they need to succeed at work and a portfolio of achievement that will show employers, universities and colleges their full potential.

Richard Darlington is head of the Open Left project at Demos.

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