Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A-levels - gold standard or old standard?

Was something added to the water in 1988? From about then, there has been a steady rise in kids doing well in GCSE and A levels (see chart). Good for them. You would expect improvements in teaching, learning and attainment over time - because there is no reason why teaching and learning should not be subject to productivity gains just like everything else - and there has been an explosion of opportunities to learn over the lest couple of decades. But the A level pass rate has now reached 94.4%, with 22.1% bagging an A grade [official stats]. Much agonising has gone into whether the exams have just got easier, the kids smarter or the teachers better.

Probably some of each. It seems that a candidate of a given ability (as measured in standardised tests over time) would have scored higher A level grades as the years passed - see lower chart to the left. It also seems that some A-levels are easier, in that candidates of standardised ability will do systematically better in some subjects (media, textiles, drama) than others (latin, statistics, chemistry). As well as each subject becoming easier to do well in, there has also been a shift to the subjects that are relatively easier to do well in. This fascinating research by Dr Robert Coe of Durham University is summarised here. He generously suggests several explanations for his results... better teaching, better exam technique, changes in assessment method may allow more students to demonstrate higher capability, changes in the reference group taking the standard test and easier exams and assessments.

But what problems arise from this? Two really. Firstly , intertemporal comparisons - especially over long periods are difficult if the standards are inconsistent. But apart from the wounded vanity of people who did well in their A levels in 1979, this isn't really a problem as A-level comparisons between people of considerably different ages are rarely made for practical purposes, like employment.

Secondly, and more problematic is in making distinctions between the top performers in the current cohort. This is a problem as there is a strong demand for qualifications that will identify the top 1%, 5%, 10% etc. But with A-grades reaching 22%, the A level system doesn't provide this. The A* grades just test the ability to provide perfect answers to easy questions, which isn't much help. But employers and higher education institutions that want to identify high performers will always find ways to do it - and we are now witnessing this: the growth of the International Baccalaureate, new pre-University exams, and screening out easier A levels as 'unsuitable' or 'ineffective'. Guess which schools will adapt most effectively to this ad hoc approach to screening for elite performance...?

All of this is, however, secondary to the real problem with A-levels and GCSE. Which is that they just aren't fit for purpose any more. Too much specialisation too early combined with a narrow view of education and skills. The Tomlinson Report commissioned by the government and published in October 2004 had a brilliant critique of qualifications system for 14-19 year olds:

It is our view that the status quo is not an option. Nor do we believe further piecemeal changes are desirable. Too many young people leave education lacking basic and personal skills; our vocational provision is too fragmented; the burden of external assessment on learners, teachers and lecturers is too great; and our system is not providing the stretch and challenge needed, particularly for high attainers. The results are a low staying-on rate post-16; employers having to spend large sums of money to teach the ‘basics’; HE struggling to differentiate between top performers; and young people’s motivation and engagement with education reducing as they move through the system
Tomlinson's review recommended a diploma system similar in concept to the ever more popular International Baccalaureate - which, like the IB, would stretch the top performers, but also not exclude or degrade vocational study. Tomlinson's extraordinary achievement was to secure buy in to this idea across political parties and a wide range of stakeholders including OFSTED, the schools inspector. However, when the government responded in the form of its 14-19 Education and Skills White Paper it ditched the main proposals made by Tomlinson's team and insisted that A-levels are here to stay as the 'gold standard' - an approach that is already falling apart.

Why did the government perform this apparently self-immolating act...? I can only draw your attention to the BBC Education Correspondent's dismal account of shallow politics and political ineptitude - about which I couldn't possibly comment.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more that the rejection of Tomlinson's findings is one of the most unpleasant abdications of government responsibility in recent years.

In addition to the 'middle England' politics issue I think this is also a symptom of the systemic misunderstanding of the information economy, and the UK’s educational response to it. There’s essentially two overlapping effects – an outward shift in labour supply (and other factors of production) combined with falling transaction costs in knowledge exchange. Even elementary economics would suggest that unless there’s at least an equal demand response the value added from engaging in these activities will fall. If anyone wants to take me up on this I’m willing to bet that we’ll see falling wages in sectors like IT programming vis-à-vis equivalently qualified sectors over the next two decades.

But this seems exactly the opposite of what the Government’s policy response implies. I’d suggest there are three high value added areas where education policy should focus.

First, there will be high returns to information-augmentation (read: judgement) rather than information-production, requiring ability to conceptualise and build on network externalities. This points to the need to focus on a core top 20% or so (and potentially strengthen the post-graduate offer) as well as critically developing students’ ability to apply these skills in the real world. I think this will end up showing up in the relative growth of the Russell Group universities vis-à-vis the newer universities, as well as courses that develop these value-added skills (economics, law, natural sciences etc).

Second, there will be high returns in sectors which cannot benefit from enhanced labour migration or that rely heavily on knowledge of institutions, language and culture. This points to focussing a policy response on developing the vocational skills required here – anything from health and social care to hospitality and tourism. This is applicable to a much wider cohort of people – many of whom are currently forced through the gold-standard ‘academic’ route or marginalised too early.

Third, there will be high returns in the ‘low-end’ sectors where land, labour and capital are less mobile. This is more of a labour market than educational response (i.e. pro-immigration, flexibility etc) but again the key thing to emphasise is the academic route is the ideal for everybody – it’s entirely valid for 10-20% to leave school early - what’s needed is to ensure they have the basic life skills necessary to engage in these areas which is probably not a clutch of E grade GCSEs.

Apart from the wider economic losses, I’d argue the current education structure is most unfortunate for those who do well (but not brilliantly) and get average A-Levels and degrees from average universities. The Government promises them that globalisation will ensure high returns for their tuition fees, when actually all the market signals suggest they should be focussing efforts on a different set of skills. Their only hope is that they listen to the market rather than the Government…


Anonymous said...

Not sure it really matters that much whether standards have 'fallen' or whether we are teaching kids the right curriculum.

The central issue is that on both matters, schools aren't responding to what individuals or employers want and I mean want now rather than 20 years ago (which is really where Tomlinson is coming from).

Schools are analogous to soviet factories, providing goods according to central dictat, free from any particular pressure from either the beneficiaries of that education (children and their parents), or employers, but simultaneously constrained to provide a very homogeneous product. Can it be any wonder that we are continually wondering why education is so crap?

No amount of tweaking with with either the 'standards', or the curriculum will change this.

In any case, can someone please explain to me how 'experts' in some department or quango (or indeed anyone for that matter) are supposed to know what the economy 'needs' over the next 30 years?

Anonymous said...

Anon - I agree in part with your diagnosis of failed planning in the education system. However, I think the analogy with soviet factories is perhaps somewhat overstating things. Like all good public policy areas, education suffers from both market failures and government failures.

The pure market solution fails: because market signals (e.g. salary) have imperfect passthrough to student choice; because there are large time lags between the two life periods; because there are multiple information and coordination problems; because there are endemic risk factors (particularly reputation) that providers may be unwilling to bear at any level of return; because there are demand volatility effects (re: choice) and government policy changes that may deter providers from entering; and, because there are other social and economic considerations relating to education.

The pure government solution – of simultaneously funding, regulation and providing education – fails for the reasons you rightly identify: homogenous product, unresponsiveness to need, requires large scale planning, locks inefficiencies and weak incentives into the system.

Though without contention, I think this calls for a quasi-market solution -probably involving government picking up the funding bill for schools, opening the provision to greater contestion, and freeing up the regulating side based on this commissioning structure. Of course no one can predict fully the economic needs of the future, and that’s one reason why greater market signals (particular at 16-19 level) are required. But the government is still going to have to have a role in establishing the incentive structures in education and so it’s quite valid for this to involve some hypotheses about economic need. I think my concern about the government’s one is that it’s based on a rather rigid approach – particularly in regards to the 50% target for HE. Perhaps I’m totally wrong in my hypothesis too, but that doesn’t invalidate the need for policymakers to try to pick up some of the trends and market signals that the government appears to be missing


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Disagree with you about Tomlinson though. I broadly agree with his problem definition, which you quote. But I think his answer would have exacerbated what's perhaps the biggest challenge - the poor quality of vocational education and qualifications in this country. An overarching diploma would have inevitably have meant the vocational elements were watered down academic qualifications rather than something different and engaging. You can't achieve "parity of esteem" just by willing it. And the challenges facing A-levels - credibility, breadth, developing key competencies as well as knowledge - are probably better addressed separately - best of all by replacing A-levels with the IB.

Clive Bates said...

I can see the advantages of a market-based system in improving school performance - in the way envisaged by the Blairite public service reform optimists. It might even work if they can deal with the inbuilt tendency of "choice 'n' voice" to amplify inequalities and exclude or marginalise poor performers, the need for an exit regime for failing schools or school management, and quality assurance of entrants... etc etc

But I think it's a stretch to imagine that sort of approach could be used to determine the qualifications structure and content that schools are trying to deliver. DK's market failure approach is spot on. Aren't most parents really looking for their kids to attain a high standard in a qualification recognised to be relevent in life and work? The certificates gained in qualifications are like any other currency - they signal an exchange of value. It matters therefore how 'credible' the qualification is - ie. how widely known and respected it is. That is exactly why the IB is on the up - parental demand and opportunism on the part of fee-charging schools. Like a currency, the qualification regime needs its 'central bank'. I don't think that is a Soviet idea.

I also can't see how parents or even employers are equipped to know what the economy needs for the next 30 years. I think some of the ideas in Tomlinson for nurturing creatvity, curiosity, and long projects etc are very good and exactly what we need. DK's views on the three high value added areas for education policy future are intriguing too. But I'd be very surprised if such ideas appeared from the aggregated preferences of parents or the CBI. Employers mostly know what skills they needed yesterday.

Finally, if Tomlinson is 20 years out of date, what is bang up to date and actually in play elsewhere in the world? We should remember that our 'progressive' government opted for a system that is well over 50 years old. It may not have been perfect, but it would have been a major advance, and it did have the merit of huge buy-in, so may actually have worked.