Independent schools should pick their battles wisely 11th May 2014
Andrew Halls, Head , King’s College School, Wimbledon
“Hundreds of private schools are preparing to abandon A levels”, the Daily Telegraph reported on Wednesday. The facts behind this headline are a little less sensational. This week, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) proclaimed that its members “are really starting to look” at the option of international A levels. They say that many independent school heads are attracted by the “stability” offered by international A levels, currently mainly taken by pupils in India, Pakistan and China.
It is good that alternatives exist if the government’s interventions with public examinations prove as ill-advised as those of the previous ten or fifteen years. At King’s, we moved over to international GCSEs in almost all subjects years ago, as did many independent schools. Most did so, like us, to avoid the destructive and, it then seemed, inexorable pattern of bite-sized learning, and trivialisation of academic study.
For some years, modular courses at GCSE and A level meant that school children were taking public exams every year, and often twice a year, between the ages of 14 and 18. I used to wonder if during the summer term some schools had to appoint their Year 9 pupils as prefects in order to oversee the small numbers left actually attending school to go to real lessons. All the rest were either on study leave or reporting to the exam hall to be weighed and measured.
So there is a healthy tradition in this country of schools standing back from a wilfully perverse or anti-educational exam system. That is one reason that in the early-noughties King’s introduced the International Baccalaureate, as did many other schools at the time and since.
But it would be a cause for concern if the stance proclaimed this week by HMC appears in the eyes of others not to be educationally principled, as it was when many schools moved away from modular GCSEs to the fully-linear and terminally-assessed IGCSE, or from modular A levels to the IB or the pre-U.
HMC’s anguish now seems to be directed at the loss of the post-2000 A levels, and the end of modularity and coursework – the very opposite of heads’ concerns fifteen years ago. Is this really a protest against incompetent government, or mere coat-trailing? If private schools see that universities rate the new qualifications highly after all, then we will suddenly hear rather less about international A levels.
It may be that “hundreds” of my colleagues in HMC really do pull out of the national A level system, although I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. After all, it wasn’t very long ago the same voices were heard proclaiming the virtues of the Welsh Board’s modular A levels – until there was a slew of evidence that the Welsh education system has performed woefully when judged against the rest of the UK in recent years. Not that this in itself has anything to do with the Welsh Board itself, of course, but it seems to have taken the gloss off the story.
Independent schools should know how delicate their position is. Making a principled stand against a failing exam system is one thing, but appearing to be too good for what may prove a worthy and demanding improvement on the status quo is another.
It may well be that Mr Gove’s A levels are a travesty, as the New Labour qualifications proved themselves to be. Or it may be that Cambridge University’s championing of AS levels is so powerful that Mr Gove or his successors allow Lower Sixth AS levels to count towards the final A level grade, as is currently the case. However, the picture is far from clear, and although I can understand my colleagues’ frustrations with Mr Gove’s impulsive approach, I would prefer to see the new A levels given time to prove themselves.
The vast majority of UK sixth formers will take the new A levels – it would be dangerously pompous of independent schools to show such disdain for the courses they are embarked upon without being quite sure that they had been sold a dud.
It is in no one’s interests to have a failed national exam system. But nor is it in the interests of independent schools to give the impression that no national exam system is ever good enough for them.