Failing A-levels

As it is tangentially related to yesterday’s post I thought I’d comment on an article in The Times with the headline

University grades: firsts for quarter of students with lowest A levels

The piece (which you probably won’t read as it is behind a paywall) goes on to imply that the success at degree level of students who got poor A-levels results is the result of ‘grade inflation’.

My take on this is somewhat different. To me it just confirms what I’ve thought for years, namely that A-levels are virtually useless, either as a preparation for undergraduate study or as an indicator of academic potential. If they are are a guide to anything at all, it is to the quality of the school the student was lucky enough to attend.

It’s not only a shame that UK universities rely on A-levels so heavily for student recruitment but also a disgrace that institutions are punished in league tables whenever they take on students with low results. And if they do a good job educating such students to high levels of achievement they get attacked in churlish articles accusing them of lowering standards.

The assumption behind this is that there should be a near-perfect correlation between entry and exit qualifications. That is not the case at all, and why on earth should it be?

Look at this the other way round. Oxbridge only accepts students with the highest A-levels results, so why do these Universities not award more first-class degrees? Dare I suggest that perhaps not all the students they select have the aptitude their school qualifications suggest?

I noticed this the other day. It’s a list of skills needed for the job market in 2020.

Strangely, ‘rote learning’, ‘uncritical regurgitation of factoids’, and ‘ability to perform formulaic tasks’ are not on the list. They’re not much use as a preparation for university study either. So why does the UK school education system place such an emphasis on precisely these useless activities, to the exclusion of actually useful things?

Answers on a postcard please.

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5 Responses to “Failing A-levels”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Although I agree with much in Peter’s essay above, I have to say that I found my A-level studies excellent, although that was a few decades ago. The teaching I received was of very high quality, and gave great emphasis to problem solving particularly in mathematics. I found that teaching was a rock-solid foundation for university study.

    Indeed I was surprised to find university teaching much poorer in quality than A-level teaching, although part of that was the much faster rate of university teaching.

  2. “The assumption behind this is that there should be a near-perfect correlation between entry and exit qualifications.”

    This would imply that the time spent leads to no improvement. 😐

    • No, only that the improvement correlates with entry levels.

      It takes more effort to help students develop from a less prepared background. The students need encouragement, but the staff do too.

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