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  • Writer's pictureAndy Forbes

A-Level Snakes & Ladders

One thing is clear from the 2023 set of A-Level results: the stress and turbulence of the COVID pandemic continues on. Since 2019 students have been on a rollercoaster ride of teacher-assessed grades, dysfunctional algorithms and exam board glitches. For those young people caught up in this unprecedented turmoil, A Levels have resembled a game of snakes and ladders, with sudden and unexpected ups and downs in grades and university admissions.


The headline figure is the fall in the number of top grades awarded this year across the UK. While last year 35.9% of entries in England were graded at A or A*, this year it’s down to 26.5%. This is a direct result of the government’s decision to bring grades back into line with pre-pandemic levels. Tens of thousands of school leavers who would have gained top grades over the past three years have been left disappointed.


The DfE’s decision to return grades so rapidly to pre-Covid levels is based on their stated determination to “maintain standards”, supported by some flimsy evidence about higher levels of drop-out from university by those students who were enrolled during the pandemic.


The fact is that pupils taking A Level exams this year have experienced three years of disruption to their GCSE studies and A Level courses, and is the cohort most badly affected by the nightmare of school closures, home learning and social isolation during the era of lockdowns. On top of all that, most have been affected by teacher strikes this year. It seems harsh, to say the least, to subject them to the full rigours of a pre-pandemic exam system when they have had so many extra obstacles to overcome.


Predictably, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has come in for a barrage of criticism for suggesting during a TV interview that young people’s future career prospects will depend more on how they perform in the workplace than their A-Level results, or even their performance at university. But it’s worth remembering that she is the first Education Secretary to have completed an apprenticeship, rather than following the traditional academic route, and that she has a passionate commitment to vocational education as an equally effective pathway to success.


And this brings us to the deep underlying issue that continues to plague England’s education system. Listen to what exactly Gillian Keegan said: “It is really all about what you do and what you can demonstrate and the skills that you learn in the workplace."


But the A-level system is all about cognitive learning, the ability to absorb and produce textbook knowledge in controlled conditions, not about applied skills. Our entire education system has a strong inbuilt bias towards cognition and knowledge, and against skills.


Only 39% of 18 year olds in the UK take A-Levels, a minority. Every year thousands take vocational qualifications, apprenticeships, and now T-Levels. But the obsessive attention paid to the achievements of a minority of our young people, and the almost complete lack of attention given to the 61% majority, illustrates the depth of the problem we have in this country.


We urgently need to move beyond a system where skills are seen as secondary to knowledge, where all the performance measures for schools are based on exam results rather than skills development, and where education is conceived as a single-shot opportunity, rather than a lifelong journey.


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