A new level

The rise of the ersatz A-level has stymied independent study and original thought. After successfully becoming a mass market qualification in the 1980s and 1990s, A-levels underwent radical surgery in 2000 that damaged their intellectual integrity. Modularisation and mechanised marking were introduced despite the objections of universities. These changes have not widened participation – instead they have created a generation of “high maintenance students” who struggle to think for themselves. The A-level should be renewed and expanded by putting universities back in charge, and must be offered at all schools – otherwise the most deprived students will be denied an academic route out of poverty.

Intellectual integrity is not the privilege of an exclusive elite. It is the foundation of a good education. Universities, employers and students all crave the independence of mind developed through in-depth study of a coherent academic discipline, demonstrated by the fact that 46 per cent of 16 year olds now study A-levels compared to 33 per cent doing other qualifications. The A-level is primarily a university entrance exam – 76 per cent of students who do it go on to university. Yet universities are almost entirely marginalised in the process of setting and validating A-levels.

Reform‘s study by academics into English, Mathematics, History and Chemistry shows a hollowing of A-levels, particularly since 2000. “Like sat-nav rather than a map” (Mathematics) or “using somebody else’s mind” (English), A-levels do not encourage students to think or show flair. Students are heavily directed in answering questions with rigid marking schemes and “assessment objectives” making it clear exactly what is expected of students.

Interviews with admissions tutors reveal a generation of students who struggle to study independently and think for themselves. The idea that only “elite” universities are suffering is a myth. Reform‘s research into some lower-ranking institutions indicates that their students too are capable of more, but are arriving at university less and less well-prepared.

The key change was the wholesale introduction of modular exams in 2000 which saw the quantity and cost of exams doubling. Modularisation has particularly affected linear subjects like Mathematics that need to build on previous experience. Resits have created a group of students who always seek a “second chance”. Mechanised marking has prevented examiners from rewarding clear flows of argument, originality and flair.

Intellectual integrity was traded off against a central drive for wider participation. This has failed. Increases in participation have flagged since the major changes to A-level in 2000, following acceleration in the 1980s and 1990s. If anything the gap between schools in the state and private sectors is widening as the best schools increasingly turn to respected, rigorous qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate and Cambridge Pre-U. Meanwhile the majority of state schools are stuck with a hollower A-level.

Action must be taken to re-link A-levels with their strong academic heritage. Universities should take responsibility for the quality assurance of A-levels. New ersatz qualifications such as “Use of Maths” and “Critical Thinking” A-levels should be halted. The renewed A-level should be available in all schools, giving students from all backgrounds the opportunity to study genuinely thought-provoking material that equips students properly for further study and provides Britain’s economy with the sound academic foundation it needs.



As a Head of History in a large Comprehensive school I would like to support your conclusions 100%.

I fear the next round of new GCSE courses will go exactly the same way.

Thank you for your report.

Secondary History teacher, Dorset


I have not had a chance to read the full report, but I find myself in broad agreement with the summary on the web. It is important to remember that there was never a golden age of A-levels and I suspect that the qualifications always had some problem or another. Among the students I teach in Bristol the best remain outstanding and the average very good. However, there is a minority who seem to lack problem solving skills: they can solve a small problem if given hints on how to do it, but struggle with a long multi-step problem. This is consistent with your report’s “sat-nav” comments. Given our high admissions requirements, I think this minority is surprisingly large (I should expect it to be negligible).

Dr Edmund Cannon, Reader in Economics, University of Bristol