Magazine article Times Higher Education

Do Not Throw That IB Pearl Away, Richer Than the Impoverished A Level

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Do Not Throw That IB Pearl Away, Richer Than the Impoverished A Level

Article excerpt

Anthony Seldon's plea to v-cs: stand up for the International Baccalaureate before it is too late, or the academy will suffer.

Dear vice-chancellors,

I know you have intense pressures and demands on your time, but you need to be aware that something serious is happening on your watch that requires urgent attention.

You will be aware that for many years A levels have been losing their intellectual power. The breakdown into bite-sized modules has encouraged the culture of regular resits until top grades are attained. The content has been getting lighter, the examinations more susceptible to intrusive teacher and exam-board influence. Three times as many A grades at A level are awarded than a generation ago. The three A grades that your departments are asking for your top courses are acquired more through rote learning than thinking.

Your admissions staff seem not to fully realise what is happening. The schools themselves naturally do not want to tell them or break their cosy oath of omerta about A levels. Exam boards certainly are not going to let on, and are working closely with schools to ensure the savvy ones get even more A and A grades. The Department for Education isn't going to tell you: it wants to boast a year-on-year improvement in results. All join in the rictus dance around the league table totem pole, in an ecstasy of ever-increasing frenzy and mirth. All are in on the cover-up. You are being deceived and students are losing out while schools revel in their league table glory.

Don't believe me? The examiners' reports on the University of Oxford's finals papers leaked two weeks ago starkly illuminate the problem. Many candidates, the reports say, fail to display critical thinking and respond in an "A-level style" by merely regurgitating knowledge. Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King's College London, told Parliament's Education Committee last month that the drive to make school exams more transparent and accountable had narrowed learning and made it steadily more banal.

GCSEs and A levels are in deep trouble and we need you to stand up and say so if your universities are to recruit students who can think independently and love knowledge. The A grade, introduced two years ago to "toughen" the A level, has done no such thing. It has merely made schools play the exam system in an even more sophisticated way - and independent schools are better at this game than state schools.

The International Baccalaureate (IB) is totally different, and is best known for its diploma, which is offered in sixth forms. It is the jewel in the crown of British education, but it is expensive to run and state schools in particular are finding it difficult to afford in the current climate. …

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