Raise a glass to students’ success but we need to talk about A-levels

IT’S A-level results day. Across the country, 18 year olds will be nervously waiting to find out their results, with thousands of university places dependent on the right grades. We shouldn’t hesitate to celebrate these young people for their months of hard work and dedication, as well as praising the teachers who have played such a crucial role in their pupils’ success.

But a debate has raged on this day for each of the past few decades about “grade inflation” and whether A-levels have been getting easier – in particular whether it’s becoming easier to get an A or A* grade. This debate shouldn’t distract from the celebrations, but it is crucial that we take it seriously to ensure that we are able to compete in an increasingly competitive global market for skills.

The real test of whether A-levels are credible enough shouldn’t, of course, be based on the opinion of politicians, commentators and think tankers. Ultimately, the most important test for the qualifications should be the esteem in which they are held by universities and businesses. A major question that must be asked is whether A-levels are rigorous enough in comparison with similar qualifications from other countries.

Set against these standards, A-levels don’t seem to be passing the test. There has undoubtedly been grade inflation over recent decades. From the early 1980s, the proportion of A grades being awarded has increased year on year. In 1982, 8.9 per cent of A-levels awarded were in A grades, while in 2010 that figure stood at 27 per cent. Indeed, the A* grade, introduced after complaints about grade inflation, accounted for 8.2 per cent of all grades in 2011 – almost the level of the original A grade thirty years ago. This is evidence that A-levels aren’t as rigorous as they could be, particularly when compared with similar qualifications overseas.

There’s a pretty straightforward solution to many of the concerns about grade inflation. Exam boards could provide pupils with richer information about their performance in relation to others. This could easily be done by giving pupils a percentile score, alongside their grade, which would make their relative performance to other pupils much clearer. Percentiles would also benefit employers and universities, by introducing much more transparency into the system, as well as providing a straightforward comparison across subjects and exam boards.

Consideration also needs to be given to ensuring that the curriculum is rigorous and testing. Research by the University of Durham has shown that Film Studies students are likely to do a grade and a half better than students studying science. Issues with the rigour of certain subjects in the curriculum have forced some employers and businesses to take defensive action. Some universities don’t accept certain A-levels, which they regard as less rigorous. Top universities allegedly maintain a “banned list” of certain subjects, while employers have also become more selective about which A-level subjects they value in a potential employee.

It’s lazy to mindlessly criticise so-called “Mickey mouse subjects”, many of which have a crucial role to play in our economy. But we should ensure that different A-levels have similar levels of rigour and credibility and aren’t viewed by employers, universities and students as a relatively easy route to a good grade.

The government is right to devolve more power and autonomy to schools and colleges over the curriculum. But schools shouldn’t see this as an excuse to shop around for less rigorous subjects, which could improve their league table performance. The reputation of a school with parents, businesses and universities will be affected by what they decide to teach.

Rather than seeking a short-cut to improved academic performance, schools should use autonomy over their curriculum to teach subjects that are academically rigorous, with real world application. And this might involve working with local universities and local businesses in the design of courses.

Today, we should raise a glass to students’ success. But once the celebrating is done we need ensure that A-levels remain credible to parents, universities and employers.

David Skelton is deputy director of Policy Exchange. You can follow David on Twitter @djskelton