In defence of ‘A’ levels

I was a difficult teenager. I specialised in challenging authority and especially the 1980’s school curriculum. I refused to be conscripted into the school’s combined cadet force and claimed to be a ‘conscientious objector’. The school quite rightly didn’t buy this argument, and accurately surmised that my opposition to the CCF was more to do with autonomy than pacifism. After a protracted stand off I was eventually allowed to keep the school bees. The hives were subsequently relocated to a site underneath the Head’s study window.

Every school faces a difficult decision about how much curriculum choice it gives its pupils and when. Too much choice too early and pupils may make poor decisions they will regret later. Early specialisation may result in a lack of breadth, and children who are only partially educated. Lots of choice will also lead to a proliferation of smaller class sizes and higher costs for either the state or parents to bear.

The Perse has achieved a good balance between compulsion and choice. In the I/GCSE years pupils (and their parents) do have some choices and the option to carry out a research project of their own design (the HPQ). However, they are also required to study a core of seven subjects (English Language, English Literature, Maths, Physics, Chemistry, Biology and one Modern Foreign Language) to I/GCSE and thus guarantee a breadth of knowledge and skills. This breadth is enhanced by depth, as in all subject areas Perse staff take I/GCSE pupils above and beyond the confines of the exam specifications.

Such compulsion is not popular with every fourteen or fifteen year old student but it does ensure a comprehensive education.

In the Sixth Form my natural liberal tendencies take over. I like the much maligned ‘A’ level because it offers academic rigour with choice. The new A* grade is a gold standard, and beyond this students have the challenge of securing as many UMS marks as possible. Across four module papers, only a tiny number of truly excellent pupils will secure 400/400. Top universities know this and use such UMS scores to differentiate between exceptional applicants. In some subjects we are extending choice by giving students the option of either following modular ‘A’ levels or the linear Pre U. (In many ways the Pre U is a reincarnation of the demanding ‘A’ level specifications of the past with all the exams sat at the end of the two year course. The top Pre U grade Distinction 1, sits above an ‘A’ level A*).

What really attracts me to ‘A’ level however is choice. Whilst the International Baccalaureate stipulates that sixth form students must continue with Maths, English, a language, a science, a humanities subject and the arts, the ‘A’ level and Pre U curriculum is free of such requirements. Yes students must consider university entrance and career issues in their choice of subjects, but after that they can just pick the subjects they are good at and enjoy. It is a simple and proven recipe for success. The committed scientist can thus focus on the sciences and maths, whilst those with more general interests can design a curriculum to meet their particular needs – I studied English Literature, History, Geography and Chemistry.

At The Perse students can study up to five ‘A’ level or Pre U subjects, conduct independent research through the Extended Project Qualification, and participate in a wide range of extra-curricular activities and community service placements. I believe that we offer all of the roundness that comes with the International Baccalaureate, with none of the compulsion. Informed choice works.

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