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14 August 2020

The A-level debacle shows why coursework and AS-levels should never have been scrapped

The all-or-nothing education system introduced by Michael Gove was always bound to fail at some point. 

By Rohan Banerjee

The impact of Covid-19 on A-level results this year has renewed the case for coursework. With pupils unable to sit their exams due to the lockdown, grades were awarded based on predictions from their teachers, which were then moderated by Ofqual, England’s exam regulator, and its equivalents in Northern Ireland and Wales. Ofqual used a statistical model, which took into account factors such as a schools recent exam history, and students’ previous external exam results.

In others words, students have not been judged solely on their own performance, but also other people’s, or other people’s perceptions of them. And this seems remarkably unfair. 

Almost 40 per cent (39.1 per cent) of A-Level grades were downgraded. The 39.1 per cent total comprised 35.6 per cent of results being lowered by one grade, 3.3 per cent reduced by two grades, and 0.2 per cent by three grades. A frenzy around university places has followed, with thousands of students, as it stands, potentially missing out on the chance to attend their preferred institution.

[see also: The A-level results injustice shows why algorithms are never neutral]

Students can appeal their grades – as many will do – by notifying their school or college, which will then send evidence, such as their mock exam results, to Ofqual. But the lack of consistency in how mocks are administered from school to school presents another challenge. 

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[see also: A majority of UK voters think that teachers alone should set this year’s exam results]

The all-or-nothing education system installed in England when Michael Gove was education secretary (2010-2014) was bound to be exposed eventually. And the pandemic underlines its absurdity.

The Conservatives scrapped coursework for most subjects across GCSEs and A-levels between 2013 and 2017. The party also decoupled AS-levels, the exams sat at the end of Year 12, from the overall A-level grade awarded in Year 13, meaning that a student’s qualification is assessed entirely on one exam or a series of exams at the end of a two-year course. 

The abandonment of modular course structures – that allowed people to pace and compartmentalise their learning over several different sittings – means that students are under extreme pressure throughout their studies, culminating in one intense flurry that takes little consideration of their health or other circumstances. 

Coursework – usually essays or project-based reports – is often criticised as a less intense mode of assessment that is susceptible to cheating. Parental and teacher influence or input into submitted work are cited as the key problems. But, surely, there are ways of better policing coursework, rather than abandoning it entirely?

If students had completed externally moderated coursework before the pandemic, it would have given a more reliable projection of their ability than what former students were graded the previous year. Moreover, this criterion unfairly disadvantages high-achieving pupils who attend historically lower-achieving schools. 

[see also: Top A-level grades soar at private schools as sixth form colleges lose out]

While coursework isn’t suited to every subject – maths and the sciences lend themselves more easily to exams – there is some merit in the skills it requires. Researching, referencing and reading broadly to produce one overall project over an extended period of time are the essence of most university courses: the very thing that A-levels are supposed to lead towards. Why, then, should the process of learning be reduced to a giant memory test? 

A return to coursework, with reforms enabled by technology, is possible in the future. Students can be assessed remotely and even, if essential, under timed conditions – albeit for longer periods than an hour or two. Coursework also better serves those students who struggle with exam-induced anxiety. And if Ofqual is so concerned about teacher input, why not let the exam boards grade the coursework, as they would have done for modular exams in the past? 

This year’s A-levels – and most likely the GCSE results announced next week – have delivered mass injustice. Too many students have been let down by a postcode lottery. But, beyond that, the rigid, unforgiving absolutism of the education system has been exposed. Coursework is not a panacea but it is, perhaps, a leveller. And in the event of another pandemic, it would at least give students more agency over their futures.