We need to talk seriously about a 9-1 grading system for post 16

12 Sep 2021, 5:00

If we don’t act on grading soon, higher education providers will start to set their own entrance exams, writes Mark Dawe

With the new academic year in full swing, it’s vital the education sector looks back at all we’ve learned over summer 2021.

There’s no debate that the pandemic has created challenges for those obtaining their education, causing rifts and controversy around grades that ultimately impact their entire future.

A-levels have seen two exceptional years when it comes to results, with the latest figures showing a substantial increase in A* and A grades, building on an already significant increase in 2020.

However, we now need to think about the year ahead and the years to come. Should we keep letter grading, return to the percentage system, or come up with a future-thinking approach?

There is no perfect solution for the future, just as there wasn’t when we entered this unprecedented period.

After five years as chief executive of exam board OCR, to me one thing became clear, very quickly.

We must look for the best in what will always be an imperfect system full of compromises.

What are the purposes of A-levels?

While designed to build knowledge and skills in a particular area of interest, ultimately, A-levels rank thousands of students specialising in one area.

It was recently agreed the primary purpose of A-levels is university entry. But 45 per cent of A level students achieved an A or above in 2020 (25 per cent in 2019), with 37 per cent of students getting at least three As.

So our capacity to rank students based on their A-level results alone has diminished significantly.

Do we really want a system where each university has its own entrance exam because our national system is failing them? This is the inevitable consequence if we don’t make changes.

I would suggest we do not want this.

How do we move forward?

If the pandemic has taught us anything when it comes to grading, it’s that we need to hit the reset button.

It won’t come without upsetting either Covid or post-Covid students to some degree.

But moving to a 9-1 grading system, like the current GCSE approach, along with widening the skillset taught at A-level stage, will enable us to differentiate between our students again.

It’s designed to distinguish those working at a higher level, using harder exam questions and the need for more coursework to be delivered.

The current letter grading system, however, uses assessments at the end of modules throughout the year. It’s a system that is much more reliant on exams and results in more people achieving higher grades.

This is making it harder for universities and employers to spot those who truly excel in their areas of expertise.

Additional courses

Many have also argued that A-levels aren’t broad enough, don’t cover the “soft skills” such as communication and teamwork and don’t produce a rounded individual with an easy pathway into work.

Surely every student should have digital skills plus an understanding of the workforce and issues like sustainability and low carbon when they leave education?

So with online learning increasingly popular, it’s more possible than ever to provide a blend of core A-levels alongside a whole range of online courses to add value to a student’s development.

In fact, these additional courses are now even more essential when it comes to both university entry and employment.

At The Skills Network, we use AI to determine our students’ individual strengths and gaps to pinpoint exactly what additional programmes they should undertake to support their development.

From there, an individualised online learning plan provides the young person with access to a whole range of additional skills unique to their current skillset.

This also doesn’t add further strain on already overworked teachers.

Going forward, let’s build a better system for grading, and focus on the other skills our students need to help get them prepared for the working world.

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