Decades of politicians toying with A-levels and GCSEs have left students a confusing and unfair system

In 2023, Rishi Sunak outlined a proposed change to the education system in England: scrapping the current A-level system and introducing the Advanced British Standard. This would see students study more subjects after 16 in a baccalaureate-style system.

The outcome of the general election may decide whether any students will actually complete this qualification. But this shake-up of how student achievement is measured would only be the latest in a series of significant changes made since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010.

Michael Gove, secretary of state for education from 2010 to 2014, has been the architect of much of this change in England.

Gove argued in 2009 that educational standards were “dumbing down”. His solution was to change the modular structure of qualifications, which was introduced under the Labour government. This had allowed students to accrue modules over time, completing coursework throughout the year, rather than studying for two years and taking a series of exams at the end.

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I don’t agree with Gove in that there was any dumbing down of educational standards. But he was right in claiming that students spent significant amounts of time preparing for and sitting modular assessments. His two most important changes were a return to linear assessment – exams at the end of a long period of study – and a change to grading for GCSE examinations.

A-levels returned to their former structure and the AS and A2 modules introduced in 2000 were phased out. This was arguably something of a retrograde step given that evidence shows exams alone are simply not an equitable way to assess learning and show what students know and can do.

In some subjects, girls consistently do better than boys, and vice versa. Students from poorer backgrounds have a disadvantage in examinations compared to their wealthier peers.

The change from letter grading (A*-G) to numbers (9-1) for GCSEs, which began in 2017, again presents something of an interesting policy decision. Adding more top grades, seven to nine, was intended to allow better differentiation between the highest achieving students.

However, such precision in grading may no longer matter. When young people could leave education at 16, GCSE grades were more important. Since 2015, though, the age at which young people in England can leave education or training was increased to 18, a planned change set out in the 2008 Education and Skills Act.

This raises the question of whether GCSEs in so many subjects are really necessary, or whether precision in top grades is needed when GCSEs are only a way to qualify for a future course.

Vocational education

In 2020, the introduction of T-levels for 16-year-olds provided students an opportunity to undertake placements in industry, and offered a nationally recognised alternative qualification for those who wish to study vocational or applied subjects. The T-level curriculum has also been presented as a means to enhance the perception of vocational learning and assessment.

Top down view of students round a table working on electronics project.
Students working on electronics project.

However, the T-level curriculum is only offered in limited locations – 367 of the 3,793 secondary schools and further education colleges in England. They remain the poor relation when compared to the more “academic” A-levels: some universities still do not accept T-levels for entry onto courses. This perhaps explains the introduction of the Advanced British Standard.

The Advanced British Standard is not a specific qualification. It is a framework for qualifications reflecting some of the post-16 portfolio designs from other European countries. Students are able to choose a range of subjects, majoring in some, with the option to combine academic and vocational qualifications.

The proposition of being able to build up a portfolio of evidence is enticing as it reflects a more representative view of individual students’ achievements. It remains to be seen if it will be developed in the next government’s term of office, given the range of challenges currently facing the state education system.

Restoring confidence

Perhaps the most significant thing that any new government needs to address in relation to the testing system is public confidence. In 2020, when exams were cancelled as a result of pandemic lockdowns, students received externally-awarded grades. These were then retracted due to claims of unfairness – before teacher-predicted grades were used instead. These poor policy decisions have cast a long shadow of mistrust over the fairness of our assessment systems.

Exam regulator Ofqual’s annual survey on perceptions of GCSEs shows that less than half of respondents are confident that the qualifications represent a reliable standard over time and that marking is accurate.

A valuable opportunity to change how assessment works was missed after the pandemic. This time could have been used to reflect not only on what happened in 2020, but what might be different. The rush to return to normal has led us back to a focus on testing rather than thinking about better ways to assess and document learning.

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