The Government has announced A levels are changing. Qualifications will now be based solely upon the ability to pass or fail within a three-hour window of time after two years’ of study.
The Government wants students to pass A levels through examination only.
When I’m writing for anyone else, I would write about this dispassionately, reporting the matter and canvassing the points of view of others. However, here in my blogging space I can talk as an ex-A level student and as a mother of a teenager.
For me this decision is a dreadful backward step.
Let’s not sugar coat this – it’s also a way of lowering the number of people who go into higher education.
It reminds me of a cartoon I saw on Facebook this week, shared by a teacher, showing various animals standing in front of a desk where a teacher was telling them that their pass depended on their ability to climb the tree behind them. The animals included a monkey, an elephant, a bird, a fish….you get the idea. It sweetly encapsulated the problems of examinations when I was doing my O and A levels in the 1980s.
The truth is, we are not all the same and we excel in different areas and that’s how life is. I firmly believe the pressure of an examination is good and I advocate them – but I also believe equal weight should go to course work over the years which shows a level of consistency of achievement, or not, as the case may be.
For me that’s a fairer reflection of someone’s true ability.
In my days in the sixth form, I loved my studies and I worked very hard. I consistently got As and Bs in my work and that was the expectation for my final examinations. But I knew I wasn’t good at examinations. I found the pressure difficult to manage, I found revision overhwhelming, trying to cover everything all of the time. I didn’t know where to start and went for a scattergun approach. It didn’t work.
My fears were realised when I just about scraped through my A levels. I didn’t fail but I didn’t do well enough to go to a university in the country at that time.
Ironically there was an examination at that time called an S level – higher than an A level. It was in English literature and involved three questions, and you could take texts in with you. I was the only one in my school who took it, a week after all the other examinations had finished. Everyone was demob happy and I still had another exam to do.
Armed with my Complete Works of Shakespeare and Complete Works of Chaucer, I didn’t worry about that one, because I could take the texts in and I knew I could find quotations really quickly. Got a distinction in that exam – with a D in the A level itself.
I did a degree at a college of higher education where coursework counted towards your final result and I did learn how to revise more effectively. But from then on, any test or examination I have done, has involved assessment on the job alongside high pressure tests. For me, that’s more real.
I have a daughter who is like me. I can now see myself reflected in the way she studies and I’m trying to help her be more effective than me. It pains me to think that she may, just may, be disadvantaged in 2018 if she goes on to do A levels. Will she, like me, fail to deliver because her opportunity will come and go within three hours?
What kind of message does this give our children?
I always find this time of year frustrating when exam results come out for young people – results on which the future depends – or so it seems for those affected. For young people of 16 or 18, getting the ‘right’ results can feel like it’s the only important thing in the world.
And that makes me so angry. It’s also all the media coverage of journalists in schools and colleges with students poised to open their results envelopes. And oh surprise! It’s all As and A*s and Bs, no failures, no really low marks…..
Do I blame the media for this? Not entirely.
Everyone should have the opportunity to shine.....
I do blame the industry for continually telling the same story in the same way. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to follow a young person who didn’t do so well and help them find a new way forward? How useful would that be?
But, of course, any journalist knows that it’s not that easy. What school or college wants to put forward a student who is not at the top of the class? Who wants to line up potential failures for exposure? And which young person is willing to be publicly shown as not having done very well?
The truth is that many, many young people don’t get As and A*s or even Bs or Cs. Yet the overriding impression is that more people are getting these grades so the examinations must be getting easier.
Examinations are now very different to the outdated O level and CSE system. In those days, you had one opportunity to shine and it occurred during a two or three hour window in a high pressure examination, based on what you could remember.
If, like me, you didn’t function well under that kind of pressure as a teenager – the thought that now my own children can gain marks for the long piece of coursework they’ve slaved over and lavished passion upon is uplifting. To me, it’s a much fairer system allowing youngsters who don’t thrive under examination pressure to have their chance to shine. And that’s generally how degrees and higher education and vocational qualifications work.
I do agree with high pressure examinations being part of a marking system – as life is full of high pressure situations, including a professional life. But that’s not all that is important. Coursework has its place and should be considered, especially in very vocational courses.
Also I think we should hear far more about what to do if you don’t do as well as you hoped. I worked very hard for my O levels and did reasonably well – but now when I go for a job no one cares if I’ve got O levels let alone what the grades were….but then I’m old….
As for A levels, I did pass but that was about all. And that was hugely disappointing – I was expected to be an A/B grade student. I turned out not to be. I would have been the student who, being filmed, was beaming as they opened that envelope and then in floods of tears for not having achieved what was expected.
So what did I do while clasping my C,D,E grades in my hands – knowing I’d failed to gain a place at university studying Medieval English, which was my passion at the time. Did I re-take my examinations to get better grades? Did I give up on higher education and try to find a job?
In my case, I took advice from the school and applied at ‘lower’ level establishments, went through a secondary interview process for courses which were not full. I went to Bath College of Higher Education (now Bath Spa University) to study on a new BA Hons course in Combined Studies of English Literature & History. And I had a brilliant time there, met some great friends and worked alongside some wonderful lecturers. I must name check here Dr Mara Kalnins – who was very special to me as we shared a love for the work of author D H Lawrence.
While waiting to start my course, an article came out in the local paper listing the achievements of the students who’d done well and where they would be going to study. My name was last and it simply said ‘Fiona Bune is going to Bath’. The suggestion, to me, was that readers would assume I was going to the University of Bath. I’d rather they’d put nothing because it made me feel like an also-ran, an after thought. Years later, I became the reporter on that weekly newspaper managing and writing such stories – what an irony.
So this blog is a message to all of those young people who didn’t get the As and A*s and who are feeling that somehow they’ve failed. You have not failed. You simply are now required to re-assess and think about what you want to do next – then ask for help to get there. How you handle this situation will say far more about who you are – than any amount of A grades. And that’s what a future employer will remember…..