Should we divorce A levels from university admissions?

The DfE’s consultation on post-qualification admissions could be a missed opportunity, says Kevin Stannard (article first published with TES)

a levels

The Department for Education has launched a consultation on university admissions, signalling that it supports moving to a model of post-qualification offers.

Amazingly, the consultation document completely ignores Covid. Yet the pandemic has ruptured the current system so radically that it makes now the ideal time to conceive a fundamental reform, not some deckchair rearranging of the sort that this consultation seems to suggest. The DfE has not grasped the opportunity to be really creative in a crisis.

The DfE acknowledges that the current admissions system is outdated and not fit for purpose, and that it perpetuates disadvantage. Yet it implicitly and explicitly rules out anything really radical. It simply seeks to iron out the most obvious creases in a garment that has become alarmingly threadbare and embarrassingly unbecoming.

The focus of the consultation is depressingly narrow. It takes as a given the relationship between A levels and university admission.

A levels: The gatekeeper to higher education

To be sure, A levels started life as a passport to higher study for a few, and only later – and almost accidentally – were they adopted as a form of school-leaving certification for a much bigger slice of the cohort. As a result, they currently serve two – not easily reconcilable – purposes.

The narrower purpose, as a sorting mechanism for selective universities, drives their design – and not least the increasingly tendentious grade distinctions, reflecting an obsession with slicing and dicing at the top end.

It is richly ironic that the chaos of last summer, and the current flailing around for alternatives to exams this summer, can be explained by the high-stakes nature of the qualification’s grading system, and its narrow role as gatekeeper to higher education.

If we had a better way of certificating secondary education, all would not have hung on terminal exams. If we had a better way of selecting for university admissions, ditto. If the two functions had not been conflated, we might have avoided the meltdown. Yet this is a lesson the current consultation wilfully fails to acknowledge. Such radical thinking is out of scope.

Other countries do it differently. In the USA, high-school graduation is one thing, admission to selective universities another (the latter achieved through GPAs, SATs and Advanced Placement credentials).

If UK universities administered their own tests, instead of piggybacking on A levels, the admissions process could be separated from certification of secondary-school achievement. With the umbilical cord cut, school-leaving certification could more properly capture the richness and breadth of the education offered.

Delaying entry to university

Even within its narrower frame of reference, the consultation is keen to close down anything too disruptive. Even some types of tinkering are ruled out of scope.

Two models are offered. One involves applications being made before the exams, with offers only confirmed after results. The second compresses the whole application process into the post-results period.

Tellingly, both models rest on the (unexamined) assumption that it makes more sense to truncate secondary education and hold exams earlier than to put off university-course commencement. The consultation explicitly rules out consideration of a third model, where university courses don’t start until January.

All this faithfully fulfils the premise articulated long ago by Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer, then vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, who observed: “Each stage of English education is designed for the benefit of those who will go on to the next stage, however unsuitable it will be for the rest.”

The strongest argument against a delayed start to higher-education courses is that many students would suffer from a prolonged period of limbo, without motivation or financial support.

Yet it is not clear that the windows of time being considered in the two approved PQA models would provide the level playing field that the consultation seeks. A frantic scramble to research and apply for courses after results would surely privilege those with the personal resources and institutional support for such a task.

A January start to university courses was suggested by some as a contingency for this year: instead of cancelling the summer exams, they could have been pushed into the autumn. But might it, in fact, be a long-term, sustainable solution?

In previous rounds of debate about PQA, a big obstacle was the claim that moving to January would be too disruptive. But Covid has raised the bar on our definitions of disruption, and surely if ever there was a time to shift to a new model, it would be now.

There might, of course, be very good reasons to rule out any or all of these more radical possibilities. But if we don’t pose the questions in the midst of meltdown, very likely they won’t be asked for another generation. And that would be to miss making the most of the current crisis.