Results Day isn't the time to criticise A-level exams

Posted on: 20 Aug 2014

Every Results Day, the value of A-Levels is thrown into question; it's their job to prepare students for higher education, not the world of work. By David Goodhew, Head of Latymer Upper School, London.

I have a confession to make, and it is one with which I think many 18 year old this week will identify: I have never been able to sleep the night before A level results. From my first year as a teacher to my current time as a Head, I have always been excited to see how our students have fared, and anxious as to whether they have all done themselves justice and secured entry to the university and course of their choice.

What, then, is the cause of this nervous insomnia? For a start, the stakes are very high. For schools, A level results (or their equivalents) are rightly the most public and important barometer of the academic life of the school. Parents (current and prospective), governors, and alumni scrutinize the results carefully each year, although most are pleasingly astute enough to ignore league tables, which give a very distorted picture of the relative merits of different schools. For candidates, the results can make or break their university aspirations; this is why results day itself is so full of adrenaline, and why, with its juxtaposition of elation and heartbreak, it produces such compelling drama for the media every year. As with any situation where the outcome is out of our hands, we frequently resort to superstition and try to control minor aspects of the ritual. It is fascinating, for example, to observe how different students tackle the daunting task of breaking the news to themselves: some plunge straight in, tearing open the envelope; others hold on for hours, occasionally leaving the hall and coming back, before unsealing their fate.

This uncomfortable sense that things are out of our hands is also experienced by teachers and parents; one cannot predict what candidates will actually write ‘on the day’ – will they succumb to the pressure of the situation? Will their minds go blank? Or, famously, will they forget to turn over the page and miss out a key question worth lots of marks? Sadly, one also cannot predict the accuracy and reliability of the examination marking, as research conducted for an encyclopedic report by The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference makes clear.

Given all the emotion that is invested in A level results, it is unfortunate (though predictable) that August is frequently the month for interested parties to question their value. I am always perplexed by the annual complaint from employers that A levels do not prepare students for the world of work. As it happens, I share the importance that the CBI’s John Cridland attaches to employees who are ‘rounded and grounded’. However, it is the job of the school, not the exam system, to produce such traits through its curriculum, and especially its extra-curricular programme. One cannot sit exams in teamwork, integrity, leadership, or initiative. A levels are non-vocational courses and ought to prepare students for higher education. Where universities and employers do concur is on puzzling instances of candidates with seemingly good results who appear to lack some core academic skills. It was therefore encouraging to read the new Secretary of State (‘Our reforms will boost confidence in the exams system’ Daily Telegraph 11/08/14) pledging to continue the important work of her predecessor in improving standards.

However, on this A level Results Day, I want to say that I am delighted for our students, who have done themselves proud by achieving 33 per cent A* grades and 75 per cent A*/A grades – a new school record.

This blog first appeared in The Telegraph.

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The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.