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Ignore the scaremongering – A-level reform was badly needed

No one receiving their A-level results this morning can fail to be aware that the first of the coalition government’s more rigorous exams were sat this summer. Whatever their individual results, students – and parents – should be pleased with a new system which is more reliable and a better preparation for university. They should make sure to ignore the scaremongering from those opposed to the whole education reform project of recent years.

That’s not to say that students and parents are all delighted with their experience of these reformed qualifications. There have been frequent complaints of insufficient support from exam boards, a lack of sample assessment materials and inconsistencies in the content of questions.

I do not doubt that the teenagers getting their results today have experienced a lot of pressure in the past few weeks. I taught for a decade, so I’ve seen the work students put in, and I know how traumatic a poor result can feel – especially if it means not getting into a much longed-for university. But these experiences are not unique to this cohort of students: I remember sitting my own with a quiet sense of dread (somewhat worsened by the, as it turned out, straight-As friend who arrived almost ritualistically to each exam displaying a level of hysteria more common at pop concerts). A-level exams are important and it is right that students should contemplate them with respect and a focussed mind.

It’s clear though that some student complaints illustrate how much reformed A-levels were needed. It is sad to see students complaining that they have not seen enough examples of the exam paper in advance, that they haven’t read enough examiners’ reports and that they’ve not deconstructed the mark scheme enough. There is something bleakly depressing about students complaining that their intellectual horizons have not been circumscribed enough by their exams.

But in many ways it is hardly surprising. For far too long, university teacher-training departments, local authority bureaucracy, classroom trade unions and all the many facets of what Michael Gove once labelled ‘the Blob’ connived in stripping from schools knowledge-rich education. In its place was substituted valueless but trendy generic skills requirements and ill-planned modular courses permitting endless re-sits. Inculcated into both young people and the staff who serve them was a conviction that grades are important only in-and-of-themselves and not as symbols of achievement in learning. Recent educational reforms are often blamed by those opposed to them for creating an ‘exam factory’ culture. But nothing could be closer to the factory model than students churning out near identical essays lacking flair or originality because they have been led to believe that is not merely what is required, but the entire point of their education. It is cynical and opportunistic for those who tolerated a poor system for so long to complain that changing it has been complicated.

No one receiving their A-levels today should be in any doubt that the system under which they were examined needed to change. It is also the case that the processes by which it was changed were carefully thought through to prevent any harm coming to their education prospects. Ultimately, both students and the education system they are emerging from are better off for it. They would do well to consider the wider agenda of those who tell them otherwise.

John Blake is Head of Education and Social Reform at the think-tank Policy Exchange. He was also previously a state-school history teacher for ten years.

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