If A-levels are big business, why don’t we allow more consumer choice, asks Graham Taylor.

 A-levels are still big business and the main choice for 16-to-18s at level three. Over six times more learners take A-levels than advanced apprenticeships.

Yet they are being gutted. Historian and author Simon Schama has described the cull as a “big dull axe wielded by cultural pigmies”. The latest A-level to be cut is History of Art, which follows Archaeology (despite howls from Tony Robinson and co), Classical Civilisation, Communication & Culture, Anthropology, Creative Writing and Electronics – quickly restored because someone pointed out it’s a STEM subject (I’m not making this up).

If we are restricting choice because it is expedient and cheap for the exam boards, this has a certain, if sad, logic to it. If we are restricting choice because we feel the subjects are not useful or vocational enough, this is plain short-sighted. Universities and employers like the breadth of A-levels – they also like the International Baccalaureate, where students continue to study as many as seven subjects. Once again, the biggest losers seem to be our students, whose interests are being thwarted at too young an age.

The AQA exam board says too few pupils take History of Art – the number was 839 at the last count – and they can’t recruit enough experienced examiners. Waldemar Januszczak, the Sunday Times Art critic, recently countered that by claiming he has enough qualified art historians on speed dial to mark all the art history papers in the country.

Only 107 schools offer the subject (including my college); 90 of these are fee-paying.

Focusing on the Department for Education’s English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) core subjects – English, maths, history or geography, the sciences and a language – means that the rest of the curriculum suffers. Schools will concentrate on Progress 8 scores that count in the performance tables, which include English, maths, three other EBacc subjects (sciences, computer science, geography, history and languages); and three further subjects, which can be from the range of EBacc subjects, or can be “any other approved, high-value arts, academic, or vocational qualification”.

Teaching for the rounded individual may wither, to be replaced by targeted withdrawal in peripheral non-core arts and humanities subjects. But who should judge what core and non-core subjects, or learning and skills really should be? Digital skills, anyone?

The biggest losers seem to be our students

While we’re focusing on how the drive for more academic learning has hurt A-levels, it might be time to ask the question: what’s so great about linear courses of study?

Some claim that it is a good thing: AS exams can eat into teaching time. And given the level of skill required at AS may be the same as at A-level, some argue learners will struggle to get to this standard in one year, thus increasing the fail rate and putting some learners off completing the full A-level.

Despite this, however, and despite my college’s financial interest in supporting the policy – we would save £150k a year if we scrapped AS exams – I am still not convinced about the value for learners.

AS is a stepping-off point for many, who take four AS-levels in their first year, then drop one subject to focus on 3 A-levels in the second year. The AS grades are also a good lead indicator for UCAS and university gatekeepers, holding far greater value than, saying ‘Jonny is making good progress on his A-level’.

And perhaps most importantly, after one year, the results can function as a valuable reality check and wake-up call for learners and staff alike. Without milestones, we may be setting some learners up to fail.

Rather than add to the voices raging against the post-Govian bias against soft arts subjects (which seem to have been depressingly ineffective), I would make the argument from another angle: consumer choice. If a subject dies a natural death due to lack of take-up so be it, but if learners young or old want to study it, why not? And if some learners or colleges function better with a modular approach, was it really necessary to decree that one path was best for everyone?


Graham Taylor is principal and chief executive at New College Swindon


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