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Friday, 29 November, 2002, 12:55 GMT
How to update 'bloated' A-levels
John Kerr
John Kerr
Next week Mike Tomlinson will publish the findings of the second part of his inquiry into A-levels, following this summer's grading fiasco.

One of the key players in the system is John Kerr, head of the Edexcel exam board.

Writing exclusively for BBC News Online, he argues for a streamlining and modernisation of the "bloated" exams structure.


Just as we started quietly to congratulate ourselves on a successful exam season this year, the re-grading controversy suddenly erupted.


Basically sound, the AS/A2 structure suffered from a lack of clarity in key areas

At Edexcel we were always confident our grades were set accurately and properly, and the Tomlinson Inquiry ultimately confirmed this.

But the intense media interest, political involvement, uncertainty and polarisation of views have certainly undermined public confidence in the exam system and that hurts us all.

The first lesson to be learned from this affair is that new systems need thorough testing and piloting. Curriculum 2000 was introduced hurriedly and created immense challenges for teachers, students and exam boards.

Nevertheless, it has succeeded in offering more choice and diversity and most teachers now support the new A-level structure.

Lack of clarity

If any further change must come, it should be gradual and trialled carefully. And it must be accompanied by unambiguous definition of the grade-setting process and transparent explanation for teachers.

Basically sound, the AS/A2 structure suffered from a lack of clarity in key areas.

Was the Qualification and Curriculum Authority's understanding of maintaining the standard the same as the three boards'?

Was the relationship between AS and A2 mapped out clearly for teachers?

Obviously not, and a first phase of reform, now being considered by Mike Tomlinson, must seek to correct this.

Change needed

In our view these necessary structural reforms must include either a clear 40/60 weighting between AS and A2 level, or a separation of the two components into distinct qualifications.


We suggest that the boards' awarding committees recommend a range of marks for the grade boundary, rather than a single mark

This is because AS-level is by nature, between GCSE and A-level, easier than the latter. So a simple 50/50 weighting in the final A2 qualification is not logical.

In addition, a reduction in the number of units making up the qualification and reducing the number of options available in each subject would simplify an over-complex system.

As for the process of grading itself, the Code of Practice (the set of rules written and enforced by the regulator) clearly needs tightening up and this is something Ken Boston at the QCA is looking at.

Range of marks

We also need to define more precisely the mathematical relationship between unit grades and the overall qualification grade, because otherwise inconsistencies can arise.


Tinkering won't remove the underlying strains caused by huge volumes and an outdated pen-and-paper manual operation

We suggest that the boards' awarding committees recommend a range of marks for the grade boundary, rather than a single mark.

This would enable the broad range of relevant statistical information to be brought to bear to ensure an accurate grade boundary in the first place, without apparent "changes" occurring.

More radically, we support the idea of post-qualification university application.

To move the start of the university calendar to the beginning of the new year for new students would relieve all concerned of the nail-biting pressure of a cramped summer exam season. And it would allow for more accurate university entrance decision-making.

Modernisation needed

However, many of these suggestions are technical in nature. They will help make the system run more smoothly.

But tinkering won't remove the underlying strains caused by huge volumes and an outdated pen-and-paper manual operation, which belong in the 19th Century.

At Edexcel we are now coping, but exams are too important to be left until another crisis arises to damage the system.

In the wake of this year's problems there is an opportunity for some inspired forward thinking about our exam system.

We need a new vision, applied technology, and investment.

No to baccalaureate

Importing the International Baccalaureate is not the answer. Highly academic and exclusive by nature, it would be a backwards step, irrelevant to the vast majority of students at that stage of their schooling.

Any realistic solution must apply across the range of academic, technical and vocational education.

It must give greater balance to the academic and vocational mix, with more attention and resources being channelled into the latter.

It should also reduce our reliance on high-stakes exams and external assessment.

Not only has this produced a bloated operational structure vulnerable to error, but the nature of assessment has produced distortions, such as teaching to the test.

Trust teachers

Let's cut the number of exams.


Let's trust the teachers more

We can, for example, reduce AS and A2 units for many subjects to four or even two units, with no loss of diversity.

Let's trust the teachers more, to mark exams internally.

As boards, we can provide moderation to ensure consistency across different schools and colleges, and counter fears of cheating.

This already works smoothly for Edexcel's BTec range of skills-based exams, for example.

Online opportunities

Finally, we must consider the role of technology.


We must formulate plans which take us beyond the A-level era

Online teaching and learning can be complemented by online examining and marking. And that is not just the "tick box" multiple choice type.

Advanced scanning and image capture could help reduce some of the logistical headache of dealing with millions of scripts passing around the country. Modernisation is the only option.

This, of course, will require additional funding, and exam boards, as not-for-profit charities, cannot themselves generate sufficient funds.

Whichever way we progress from this recent crisis, one thing is crystal clear.

We must formulate plans which take us beyond the A-level era; which take account of the real purpose of assessment; and which pay reference to a changing social environment demanding new forms of learning, new skills and patterns of work.

Exams are central to government policy.

In this case government, regulators, boards and teachers must work together to ensure we have a system fit for purpose.

The alleged A-level grades manipulation

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