Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The problems with A levels, and why Gove's reforms will do nothing to fix them.

The fact that Michael Gove is in charge of education in this country is as bizarre as it is terrifying, and time and time again he has found ways to outdo himself in terms of ill-thought out, illogical and simply strange proposals for how children in this country should be educated. And he’s done it again with these proposed changes to A levels.

Now, I am not a massive fan of A levels, as they are currently. I think they are seriously flawed in a lot of ways and do not encourage critical or creative thinking, and because of this are not adequate preparation for university (or, more importantly, whatever Gove may think, life). Gove’s proposed changes do not even begin to solve these problems; they do, however, create a bunch of new ones.

Taking AS and A level exams is incredibly stressful. However, you know what would be even more stressful? Taking all that pressure, and instead of dividing it up between two sets of exams, placing it all on the one set of exams at the end of Year 13. Dividing up the pressure between two years’ worth of exams eases the pressure on the individual exams. Having to keep a tonne of information in your head at once to be able to regurgitate it over a two or three hour period during an exam is horrible enough, without it being a whole two years’ worth of information. And then there’s the taking away of the ability to retake modules without retaking the entire exam. The level of pressure this would put on pupils is ridiculous. Have a bad day? Feeling sick? Family problems? Any of these cause you to screw up just one of your exams and you have to do the entire A level again. How is this fair on pupils?

And these reforms do nothing to solve the problems that Gove is, apparently, trying to tackle. He says that A levels are not in depth enough. Although this isn’t always the case, generally I would be inclined to agree. However, he then goes on to say this is because they are modular. Um…what?

Now, Gove has not made it clear whether, under this new system, pupils would still do different topics during the first year of study and the second or whether they would study the same topic all the way through. If the former, then this is literally no different to the current system, aside from far more pressure being heaped on year 13 exams. I wouldn’t put such a ridiculous move passed Gove, but let’s assume for the sake of argument it’s the latter; pupils would study the same topics for the whole two years.

I am currently at university. I study different modules, mostly relating to politics, but still on a vast range of topics. I do not study each of these topics for two year. I don’t even study them for one. I study each for half a year. Does Gove really think my university degree is not “in depth” enough?

Doing different modules at AS level and A level increased my breadth of study in a way that was really beneficial for my learning. It meant during my Politics A level I got to learn about House of Lords reform, and political pressure groups, and the history of Liberalism and the war on terror (as well as a tonne of other things); if Gove’s proposals mean that a pupil taking A level Politics could only study two of these things, that would be a great loss.

The reason that A levels are often too shallow in the level of both knowledge and critical thinking that they require is because of the way that they are marked. You don’t get marks at A levels for having read related books that aren’t on the syllabus, or for thinking outside the box; you get marks for fulfilling marking criteria a, b and c. It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand this philosopher’s argument in the slightest, because you know one quote that they said. You don’t get marks for looking at the importance of gender in this political theory because feminism isn’t part of this module.

There is no reason why, under the current system, this cannot be improved. I was lucky enough to have some amazing teachers, who didn’t let the shallow nature of the marking schemes prevent us from studying in depth. It wasn’t enough to know these two sentences on Iraq to write in the exam; we looked at it in detail. Conversely, I also got to experience learning philosophy via reading a page of quotes said by philosophers, completely without context and, very often, which told me nothing about their arguments. The problem is, right now, it’s the latter that is rewarded by A level markers, not the former.

But Gove’s proposals say nothing about mark schemes; they say nothing about actually adding depth or critical thinking to A level syllabuses. Having less exams, but exams that are marked in exactly the same way, will do nothing to improve the current system.

They will, however, rob pupils of a clear indication about the A level results they are likely to achieve, and therefore which universities they should think about applying to. They will remove one of the indicators that universities rely on when accepting or rejecting applications. They will also mean that pupils have to choose which subjects to study for the entire two years while they’re still taking their GCSEs; I know if I had had to do this I would not have picked the three subjects I did end up studying all the way to A level. The British education system already forces you to narrow your choices at a really early age; let’s not make this problem even worse.

That Michael Gove thinks that getting rid of AS level exams, as part of A levels, will magically make A levels involve more in depth thinking without any changes to the syllabuses, that placing increased pressure on a single set of exams will make the entire thing less exam-centric and that robbing pupils of an early indication regarding what kinds of universities they should be applying to will be in any way beneficial has to make you question whether this man has any understanding of how best to govern education in this country.

Which isn’t that surprising, since Michael Gove has absolutely no understanding of how best to govern education in this country.