Exam boss claims 'A-levels are not easier'


Last updated at 22:00 13 August 2006

The head of the government's exam watchdog sparked a furious row yesterday after denying A-levels are getting easier - despite urgent plans to toughen them up.

Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, attacked critics of the qualification as 'elitists' who are 'living in the Fifties'.

His outburst comes even though record numbers of schools are now turning their backs on the current exams system by offering the International Baccalaureate and harder GCSEs modelled on the old O-levels.

The government has also admitted that teenagers taking A-levels will face harder questions under a pilot scheme later this year, designed to help distinguish between outstanding pupils and the merely very good.

And a new A* grade at A-level is likely to be introduced for sixth-formers who get marks of 90 per cent or higher in their exams because so many now score As.

Referring to A-levels, Dr Boston said yesterday: 'The world has changed so much, yet many of the critics are still living in the Fifties, when only ten per cent of youngsters continued in education beyond 17 and only four per cent went to university...

'These days, 43 per cent go to university and secondary education is for everyone, not an elite.'

Education experts pointed to the imminent changes and schools' lack of faith in A-levels as evidence that Dr Boston is attempting to 'defend the indefensible'.

Chris Woodhead, Ofsted's former chief inspector of schools, said: 'The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The fact that many state schools are opting for the IB shows they have lost faith in A-levels.

'It isn't elitism or a reactionary desire for the past - it's a hope that one day we will have an examination system that identifies the genuinely top candidates.

'For years, the government has resisted the notion that anything had to be done to A-levels but finally the penny dropped. The fact that a supposedly tougher A-level is being piloted means the current A-level isn't fit for purpose.'

He added: 'Dr Boston is defending the indefensible. It's utterly predictable nonsense being spouted by him and will be spouted by Ministers later in the week.'

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, added: 'To use an athletic analogy, when Roger Bannister ran the first four-minute mile in 1954 it was on a cinder track, but now running tracks are made of springy plastic and help runners turn in good performances.

'Similarly, the conditions in which pupils do A-levels have made it easier to get good results.'

He pointed to the decision in 2000 to split two-year A-level courses into six parts, called 'modules' as a key reason, along with increased emphasis on coursework and repeated retakes.

The pilot of tougher questions and extra top grades, overseen by the QCA, will begin in schools in England from this September for students taking their exams next year.

Ministers want to introduce the changes nationwide in 2008 but there remains disagreement about how the questions will be implemented.

The QCA wants the tougher questions to be part of the main exam papers, which would be sat by all pupils.

But ministers have expressed concern that this would change the 'standard' of the exams and argued that the questions should be in optional extra sections of the papers.

This could lead many schools to choose not to prepare students for the extra questions, undermining the point of the reforms.

Meanwhile Mike Creswell, director general of examinations board the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance, has finally backed the introduction of a new A* grade after years of opposition from examiners.

He said he now believed it was 'an idea whose time had come' and would be 'happy to begin a move towards an A* grade'.

The number of state and independent schools registering to teach the IB in the United Kingdom has almost doubled from 45 in 2001 to 87 this year.

However numbers are expected to soar to 200 over the next few years due to the growing number of schools expressing interest to the International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO).

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