A levels fail to give school pupils what they need most: An education

I could not be more grateful that my future will never again be determined by a seemingly life-or-death moment involving a brown envelope. If its contents prove that I have done well in my exams, the excruciatingly hard work paid off. If I am disappointed, my life is probably over. Whatever the result, Michael Gove and the Daily Mail will tell me that A levels are getting easier anyway, so heck, why did I even bother.

This year left lazy journalists a bit stuck, however, as their probably 90 per cent recycled stories of A level students beating the previous cohort for the 243rd consecutive year were no longer relevant. This year pupils got fewer A*-A grades than last year’s for the first time since 1991.

However, this is hardly a moment for panic. A levels awarded A* or A grades made up 26.6 per cent of the total – last year that figure was 27 per cent. The overall pass rate has risen for the 30th year running, to 98 per cent. Furthermore, the number of 18 year olds in the population has declined this year, yet the percentage of people in that age bracket sitting A levels grew, showing that teenagers still see them as valuable qualifications. The A level system itself needs work, however; the overly specialised content, ridiculously tight time allowances – particularly in essay subjects – and over-reliance on mark schemes mean that answers have to be narrow, formulaic, and predictable. Students leave school insufficiently prepared for university and lacking the skills needed for work should they seek full-time employment.

One group of A levels that I do feel have done well, however, are languages. Sadly, the number of teenagers choosing to take them has continued to decline. French has halved in popularity since 1992, while fewer than 5,000 students took German this year. Spanish has shown an overall increase in demand since 2007, as have Mandarin, Arabic, and Russian, but there is overwhelming evidence to suggest that students simply do not feel a language A level is worthwhile.

To remedy this problem, two things need to change: first, the GCSE syllabus needs to be more engaging in order to encourage more teenagers to consider continuing to AS. Second, we need to lose the attitude that only ‘linguists’ need invest time in learning a language. 75 per cent (95 per cent in London) of businesses say that language skills are desirable, meaning that multilingual employees are an asset in any career path, at any level. Taking a language during your time in sixth form or university does not limit you to jobs in teaching or interpreting and makes your CV stand out.

The class of 2012 should not be remembered as the ones who did worse than the year before them. They should be remembered for going through the same stressful – but also rewarding – process as their predecessors. An education is one of the best gifts there is, and A levels are a fundamental part of that. However, at the moment they are at best a springboard into university. 18 year olds need to be armed with qualifications of use to them in the real world, particularly proficiency in languages.


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