With the prospect of A-levels being replaced by a new qualification known as the Abacc, John Moreland, head teacher of the independent Polam Hall School in Darlington, considers whether more changes should to be made to post-16 exams to prepare students for the challenges of university
My first question is has anyone done any research to see who precisely is failing at university?
Is it the traditional university-going student of years gone by, or is it the student to whom access has been opened by recent governments as part of an open-access policy?
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University was once the preserve of the academic elite. When access was opened to the extent that there are now more graduates than genuine graduate jobs for university leavers, did anyone take the time to think about the problems that this might cause?
So, which students are arriving without the skills, and - if some are arriving without certain skills - do we blame the schools for this or the universities which are not adjusting their courses sufficiently to accommodate students with lower A-level results?
It is true that A-levels can lead to narrow courses of study. After all, this was once the advantage of the UK system wasn't it? A-levels led to a three-year degree which was recognised as being narrower, or more specialised than three-year degrees in many countries around the world - and wasn't this our edge?
The wide combination of subjects I took at school - History, Geography, Economics and General Studies, along with Latin O-level to help with my preparation for the Oxford entrance exams - is not as wide as the government is now suggesting it should be.
There is a course already available that could fit the current suggestions for reform: the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). This allows students to study a subject in greater depth than is the norm at A-level and it involves the student choosing what he or she wants to study, written work which takes the form of a 5000-word dissertation and students making a presentation to an audience and taking questions at the end of it Why not throw this qualification into the mix and say that students qualify for an ABacc by taking three A-levels, and either a complimentary AS-level with a contrasting EPQ, or a contrasting AS-level with a complimentary EPQ?
This year, our Lower Sixth is looking very closely at the EPQ. If this combination was designated as an ABacc, then the majority would happily embark on the qualification.
The EPQ has enormous potential, but one of its main beauties is that the end product does not need to be a dissertation; it can be a performance or an artefact.
For some students, this variety of outcome is critical and if it is used as part of the A-level reforms, then I sincerely hope that they do not lose this aspect of the EPQ.
The aspect of voluntary work is definitely something that could be fitted into Sixth Form programmes.
Personally, I prefer to think of Community Service rather than voluntary work, as the former can be very easy to organise, while the latter can be quite difficult.
For instance, fundraising for local causes such as hospices - which is something we place great emphasis on here at Polam Hall - and children going to school in poverty-stricken countries within Africa are certainly accessible options. This kind of service is a much broader concept than voluntary work and is something that many schools incorporate already.
Here's the question that I have been leading up to: Is it right to change A-levels to fix a problem at universities, or should universities change their approach to fix a problem caused by opening access?
For instance, has anyone suggested to these universities that they make courses genuinely full-time? There would of course be no room for part-time jobs within this framework, but universities would be able to pack a lot more teaching and learning into the three years and therefore might even solve their own problems for themselves.
*Taken from one of John Morelands regular blogs from the Polam Hall school website.