A Levels May Not Be Barbaric But They Are Extremely Wasteful

01/12/2017 11:46 GMT

When David Willetts accuses England’s A level system of shocking barbarism – as he does in A University Education, (p.340) – we should pay attention.

Barbarism may or may not be fair. But in forcing 16 year olds to specialise in three subjects, A levels are highly anomalous and extremely wasteful of talent.

Willetts’ historical explanation – that what were once Oxbridge audition exams have become a general school leaver’s certificate – is probably correct. We cannot undo the past but we can make changes for the future – and changes, in my view, are necessary.

Sixteen year olds should not be asked to choose between a language or maths or the sciences and the humanities. Forcing them to make such momentous decisions limits their future opportunities, distorts their career-paths, and can lead to regrets about roads not taken.

A levels are also socially and economically inefficient. Most graduate careers – as well the problems with which our society must wrestle – do not fit discretely into academic disciplines. They require teamwork and overlap a variety of different subjects.

Many of the future challenges around new technologies, for instance, are not themselves technological problems. The success of driverless vehicles or the application of artificial intelligence require as much an understanding of psychology, ethics and business as technology.

Solutions require collaboration between people with different specialisms. Perhaps getting engineers together with philosophers and sociologists would work. But if each starts with too little understanding of the others’ specialism the result is often mutual incomprehension. Each can be tone deaf to what others judge to be vital truths.

It would be much better if each specialist came into the room with a good grounding in everyone else’s discipline. But apart from those who feel up to taking seven A levels, the current system makes such a grounding difficult.

Another, neglected, point is that studying a variety of subjects can be extremely enjoyable. There will always be some who find this a distraction from their vocation – be it romantic poetry or pure mathematics. But aren’t these precisely the people who would benefit from having their minds broadened before they are let loose on the real world?

At the University of Portsmouth we are sensitive to this problem. We have a long-standing foundation year in Engineering and many of our undergraduates in our Faculty of Business and Law benefit from a general first year before specialising in the second year.

The five thematic research areas we have developed are precisely aimed at addressing problems through multi-disciplinary solutions. None of the challenges around the five themes – democratic citizenship, emerging technologies, health and well-being, security and risk, or sustainability and the environment – can be addressed within individual disciplines so it makes no sense to try.

But there is only so much individual institutions can do. Take David Willetts’ own suggestion of four year degrees, starting with a general first year much like in the US. If only some universities offer four year degrees it will be hard for students to understand the benefits of an extra year of study and fees – especially if the benefits are to society at large and not to them personally.

Equally, if the problem is over-specialization at school, four year degrees are merely an attempt to solve in higher education a problem that is caused by the structure of education lower down – and charge students for the privilege. This is not fair.

A levels should be reformed and broadened and students required to choose one science, one of the humanities, and one language. Alternatively, A levels should be replaced with the International Baccalaureate. This would help young people and bring England more into line with general norms – including Scottish ‘Highers’ (although even in Scotland there is a drive towards staying on at school for an extra year to enable further specialisation).

Accusations of dumbing down the ‘gold standard’ must be resisted, not least because A levels as the gold standard is part of the problem. We continually worry that technical qualifications lack ‘parity of esteem’. But if A levels are the gold standard, how can they achieve parity? The latest effort – T levels – is an attempt to make technical qualifications sound like A levels. I hope it works but while a narrow specialized set of three A levels is the gold standard everything else will look inferior.

My recommendation is not radical; it is the status quo in many countries and is not substantially different from the chief recommendation of the 2004 Tomlinson Review.

The A level system itself may not be shocking or barbaric. But being fully aware of the problems it creates and doing nothing about it is. Our young people deserve an education that fits them for a rapidly changing world.

Are we brave enough to respond to their needs and re-shape the structure of the English education system to provide it?