A study by London University’s Institute of Education published this week found that the relentless pursuit of top grades at GCSE and A-level “compromised” independent schools’ abilities to deliver an all-round education such as sport, drama and trips. (James Priory, Telegraph.co.uk)
But the report’s authors also found that “anti-modular sentiment was more widespread than anti-modular action” because of the continued support for more regular assessment among students.
‘Spoon-fed’ teenagers failing to read books Though the voices in the wilderness might be getting louder, the road to league table success remains a devastatingly straight and narrow one.
Two years ago when A-level was re-launched nationwide, the heads of department at my own school, Portsmouth Grammar, saw an opportunity to make A-levels work for us rather than the other way round.
If we wanted our students to care about the subject and not the qualification we knew we had to create a public-examination-free year between GCSE and A-level.
Students would no longer therefore sit AS modules in Year 12 but would wait until January in Year 13.
We also wanted to encourage more students to complete their fourth subject as an A-level, rather than leaving it dangling at the end of Year 12. The reduction in most subjects from six to four modules made us feel that it here at last was a possibility to develop a broader, and at the same time more mature approach to sixth-form study.
Some students were understandably anxious; they knew they would be competing with students from other schools and colleges who would re-sit AS-level modules more often.
Some worried about applying for competitive university places without AS-level module scores to rely on.
And why should they study four subjects when most universities only showed interest in three?
Parents, however, were supportive and trusted that the school would not wish to jettison a proud track record by turning their children into unsuspecting guinea-pigs.
So how did we get on two years later?
Our students performed well, gaining 83 per cent A* to B with 19 per cent A*s. We enjoyed our best year for Oxbridge results on over two decades and of those leavers going straight to university, 83 per cent gained places at the research-intensive Russell Group and 1994 Group universities.
But the real story is a hidden one.
When we looked at the students’ best three A-levels as a direct comparison with previous years, we found that they matched the school’s previous record of 88 per cent A* to B with a higher value-added score from GCSE than the first record-breaking cohort.
Most significantly, out of a year group of 149 students, 112 completed four subjects at A-level – three times as many as in previous years – and without throwing the co-curricular baby out with the AS-modular bathwater.
Sixth-form participation in sport, drama and trips had grown in the last two years rather than diminished.
We have not been alone in devising an alternative route through A-level.
Many other schools that are members of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference are trying to prevent the educational journey becoming a rat race for university places.
There is, of course, an even broader curriculum model available post-16, one which is based on six subjects rather than four, and entirely linear in its assessment.
It’s called the International Baccalaureate. And where A-level cannot mimic the IB Diploma, however creative a school tries to be, is in its core internationalism.
We launched the IB diploma alongside A-level in 2009 and our first cohort- all of whom are UK-based day pupils- is now in the process of applying to study at university next year.
We will be watching their performance with great interest and with excitement too, after discovering what we have been able to do with A-level this summer.
*James Priory is the headmaster of Portsmouth Grammar School