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Making the grade

Are A levels really so bad, wonders Ross Clark? And is the International Baccalaureate the best alternative?

2 September 2011

10:40 AM

2 September 2011

10:40 AM

 In Switzerland, declared Harry Lime in The Third Man, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock. He would now surely have added the International Baccalaureate. There is no Swiss product which rates so highly with the British middle classes. Certainly not Nescafé, not in an age of filter machines. Not Emmental cheese and not Lindt chocolate.

The accepted wisdom is that while our own A levels have become watered down to the point of meaninglessness, the bac is still there to stretch pupils, just like in the good old days when schoolboys all wore blazers and caps and their masters flapped around dusty classrooms with gowns, mortarboards and canes.
The bac has spread far beyond the trendy private schools which began offering it 20 years ago. There are currently 149 state schools to offer it, with another 11 having applied to do so. It is widely accepted by universities, and in February the Royal Society appeared to endorse the move to the bac, describing A levels as ‘no longer fit for purpose’. Tony Blair also supported the bac, offering money to state schools to make the switch. This is perhaps not surprising: in spite of its appeal to traditionalists, the bac’s mission statement could be drawn straight from New Labour: ‘The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.’

But are A levels really so inferior? While the bac has been enthusiastically endorsed by state schools and is taken at some of the best-known independent schools including Charterhouse, Wellington College and Tony Blair’s alma mater, Fettes, it is significant that many more private schools have declined to adopt it. Eton, St Paul’s and Manchester Grammar, to name but three, are not on the list of bac schools. Indeed, many private schools are now experimenting with the new pre-U exam rather than the bac.

Those establishments that have adopted the bac tend to be international schools and those which have historically had less of an academic reputation.


There are certainly some rigorous elements to the bac. It forces sixth-formers to carry on studying a foreign language, something most Oxbridge-bound A level students do not do. All students must also study mathematics and a science.

But while the bac is good at promoting breadth of study, A levels — provided they are the right A levels — are better at promoting depth. Many A level science students, for example, study maths, physics, chemistry and biology. This is not possible with the bac, which forces students to choose one subject from each of six groups. Physics, chemistry and biology are grouped together under ‘experimental sciences’, preventing students from following all three.

For many students, this will not matter, but if you have been a nerd from an early age and are now wavering between cell biology and astrophysics, it is difficult to see why you should be forced to drop a science in order to study film, music or theatre. I wonder whether traditionalists who support the bac over ‘easy’ A levels appreciate that it, too, has its fair share of trendy subjects. True, if you take your A levels in Leisure and Tourism, Media Studies and Hair and Beauty you aren’t going to be going to Oxbridge. But the same is true if you choose to specialise in the bac modules of visual arts, environmental systems and societies, and the forthcoming sports, exercise and health science.

The bac has won many supporters because it includes sport and community service — students must undertake 60 hours of community work. There is a case to be made for this, but good schools will ensure that children try a wide variety of extra-curricular activities. It isn’t obvious why these should be examined as part of an academic qualification, nor why they should be squeezed into a tight school year when perhaps the summer holidays would be a better time to pursue them.

The problem with A levels is not that the best of them are not rigorous — and this is what the Royal Society was really saying — but that some schools have pushed children into vocational subjects in order to improve their rankings in the league tables. In 2009 just 17 per cent of 16-to-18-year-olds took a science at A level. But you don’t need the bac to correct that: just some better advice to 16-year-olds who are choosing which subjects to study. True, there has probably been some grade inflation over the years, but there didn’t used to be an A* grade. It is rather like marketing cars: each model gets bigger and bigger with every redesign so that there comes a point when a new brand of small car is required at the bottom end of the market.

Whether an A grade is the same as it was 30 years ago is in any case a pretty pointless debate, because  18-year-olds don’t tend to compete in the jobs market with 48-year-olds. What matters is that the grades distinguish between good candidates and very good candidates — and there aren’t so many people who come out of school with a clutch of A*s at A level. Oxford and Cambridge may complain that they find it difficult to distinguish between the large numbers of candidates with strings of As, but then presumably they had the same trouble 30 years ago — why else did they find it necessary then to set their own entrance exams, and if they are complaining about A levels now, why don’t they reintroduce those exams?

Comforting though it is for people of my generation to scoff at how the young have it easy, we are in danger of turning into Monty Python’s professional Yorkshiremen. Anyone who thinks A levels have become too easy since their day should try to prove it by sitting the exams again. I doubt whether there will be many takers.


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