A better alternative to A-levels? We already have one

2 May 2021, 5:00

A new report recommends an alternative model of post-16 qualifications. Jo Sale agrees, but wonders why the proposed solution is to reinvent the wheel

Examinations are needed for many reasons, not least because they are an important ritual of closure. Their cancellation again this year has deprived students of that and given new life to the old arguments for and against them.

Amid the turmoil, a new report by think tank, EDSK makes a strong case for reform of post-16 qualifications while maintaining a breadth of assessment. That’s a breath of fresh air, and its conclusions closely mirror my own from years of teaching alternatives to A-levels. Sadly, the report missed a solution to the problem it identifies – one that is ripe for picking.

I taught A-levels for many years. I know that for many, the end goal is securing a place at university. Students are often explicitly taught to the test, learning how to retain information but not developing a deep understanding of a subject or the key skills needed to thrive in higher education and beyond.

This is why EDSK is right that a baccalaureate-style education is the perfect fit for our post-16 provision. But a revised suite of qualifications is hardly necessary when the IB stands so far above the rest. Among its many advantages is that its assessment methods focus on the development of skills and application of knowledge across a broad curriculum rather than rote learning just a few subjects.

End-of-year exams feature, but so does ongoing internal assessment. The programme’s ‘core’ elements include the theory of knowledge course and an extended essay. Through these, IB students develop communication, team work, research and analytical and critical thinking skills that are extremely sought after by universities and the world of work, and where A-level students are lacking.

A baccalaureate-style education is the perfect fit for our post-16 provision

Assessment doesn’t stop when students leave sixth form, but they are tested in different ways. Students who have followed a linear assessment method like A-levels have been artificially exposed only to one. In contrast, the IB gives students diverse approaches to demonstrating their learning, without sacrificing depth or breadth of knowledge.

The EDSK report suggests that all of England’s qualifications could be “combined into the single baccalaureate, enabling students to mix and match courses which would be marked using the same grading and accountability system for all”.

Again, this educational offering already exists with the IB’s Career-related Programme (CP). As part of the CP, students study one Extended BTEC and undertake a minimum of two other subjects from the IB Diploma Programme (DP) alongside the CP core, creating the perfect blend of academic rigour alongside practical, real-world approaches to learning. Why reinvent the wheel?

Unlike A-levels, the DP gives students the opportunity to discover their academic passions before they reduce the breadth of their study and restrict their future opportunities. Students have the opportunity to tailor the programme to their strengths, selecting three of their strongest subjects to study at higher level, alongside the remaining three at standard level.

This equal division between the higher and standard levels across a student’s six chosen subjects means they are able to gain the depth of knowledge required to prepare them for higher education and life beyond the classroom. DP students are also asked to consider the links between the six subjects they take, a much more overt and better way to begin considering career options than A-levels offer.

With both the DP and CP, students get so much more than just subjects in isolation. A baseline of subject knowledge is valuable for any student transferring to university. But devoid of cross-curricular critical thinking, independent working and research skills – the development of which are central to the IB – they are being short-changed.

Through their two-year IB journey, students prove themselves thoroughly. By their very structure, the IB programmes leave students far better equipped for whatever comes next than their A-level peers.

So while the EDSK is right about the problem with England’s qualifications system, its solution is just harder than it needs to be. But if it can move us on from reactionary pro- and anti-exam arguments, then we are all better off for that.

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