The sorry state of British education, part 2, A-levels

The second in a three-part series on the sorry state of British education. You can read the first part on GCSEs here.

A-levels are the exams British students take at 18 years old to assess whether they can go to university, and how prestigious a university they can go to. They are also important when applying for jobs; an A-level in Maths for instance, can give you access to jobs in the technological and finance sectors that would otherwise be very difficult to enter.

Traditionally, A-levels were highly regarded internationally. They were said to be the same standard as a degree in America. But it’s clear that the system has some underlying weaknesses.

The first is the narrowness of the A-level curriculum. Most students will only complete three full A-levels; a small proportion of highly able students will complete four. This means that British students lack the breadth of knowledge that could make them more internationally competitive. Most students in other developed countries, particularly those who take the International Baccalaureate, leave school with a far more varied range of skills. They will have studied Maths, at least one science and a foreign language until 18. The vast majority of British students will not leave school with those abilities, and so are at a disadvantage when applying to university or for jobs which involve working abroad and require a wide set of skills.

The second problem is the excessive emphasis British society places on A-levels, and academic education generally. Despite a slight decline, they are still a tough qualification, one which many people aren’t naturally suited to. Yet the more vocational alternatives to A-levels are seriously underfunded, and lack the recognition by employers and social respectability that they ought to have. As a consequence of this system, Britain has some of the most able university students in the developed world, and a disproportionate number of the world’s leading universities. But it faces a severe shortage in technical skills, something which will get worse if migration falls after Brexit. There is also an increasing political and economic gap between those who have A-levels and those who don’t.

The third problem is that despite being a respectable qualification, A-levels are insufficient when applying to the more lucrative jobs. Because so many people now go to university, many employers will insist their prospective employees have degrees. But this reduces the value of the A-level as an achievement in and of itself. Instead, it has been reduced to a signalling device for universities. My grandmother left school at 18 with A-levels, and went on to work for the Daily Telegraph. Such an opportunity would be virtually unthinkable today, unless my grandmother had gone on to university. If they don’t go to university, A-level graduates tend to have to do an apprenticeship or some form of further training to make a success of their careers. This is an utter waste of taxpayer’s money, one which only punishes the working class who are disproportionately unlikely to have a degree. Instead, fewer people should go to university, giving more opportunities to those who could only afford to be educated by the state.

Overall, A-levels are still a decent qualification- one which anyone should be proud to have done well in. But the government needs to realise they’re increasingly anachronistic in a globalised world where university education is becoming the norm. Instead, more funding should be allocated to alternatives to A-levels, and to students who never intend on going to university. But those who would genuinely benefit from university should do the International Baccalaureate or the Cambridge Pre-U: both of which are more rigorous and enjoy a better international reputation than A-levels. Private schools are already making the switch, it’s time state schools followed.


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