The End of the Empire


As I write, the exam season is at its peak.

Today it is GCSE Physics, tomorrow it is A Level Psychology. This began in the early part of May, and will continue through to Wednesday 25th of June, when there is an Advanced Extension Award in Maths (due to be taken by one poor soul).

It is, by any reckoning, an enormous undertaking. We have one full-time exams officer - the wonderful Mrs Devereux - who is supported through the year by two part-time assistants (although, at the moment, their part-timedness is looking pretty full time). The whole of the Sports Complex is currently given over to exams, and, each day, around 20 invigilators are involved in helping to make sure that things run smoothly.

For some students, this is what it is all about: the exciting denouement to their years of study, a chance to show just how much they know, just how much they can do. For others, it is all pretty unpleasant: stress, uncertainty, the worry of what the future might bring.

However, for all of our students, whether they know it or not, there is a sense that they are living in the last days of the empire. GCSEs and A Levels as we know them are on their way out, with new innovations set to appear over the horizon over the coming years.

Now, I realise that, as a teacher, it is my solemn duty to disagree with all that Michael Gove, our esteemed Minister for Education, says and does (this is not a political point, I hasten to add: things would be no different if it were Tristram Hunt in the hot-seat). However - and please don't tell anyone that I've admitted to this - I rather applaud many of the changes that Mr Gove is bringing to the examination system.

By the time everything is through, GCSEs and A levels will, in theory, be more able to separate the truly outstanding from the simply very good (a welcome development in a world where achieving the very top grades is, statistically, easier than was the case ten or twenty years ago). Exams will feature only at the end of a course, rather than at regular intervals - allowing students the opportunity to escape the treadmill of constantly facing important, possibly even life-changing tests throughout their school careers.  The opportunity for schools to play the system through the judicious use of retakes will be lessened.

All of this is, to my mind, undoubtedly very good indeed.

But, unfortunately, that is not the whole story. Or rather, it is not the whole story for the next year or four, during which time things could be chaotic, awkward, uncertain and discombobulating (and this is just for Sixth Form students - let us leave the GCSE reforms to one side for the moment).

In the autumn of 2015, students who are currently finishing off their Lower Fifth year will be starting their A Level programmes, and, when they do so, they will have 'new' A levels in English, the sciences, Art, Psychology, Business, Economics, History and Computing - but old (supposedly more straightforward) A Levels in everything else.

Students currently in the First Year will have a further swathe of 'new' A levels to confront - Maths, Languages and Geography - but will still, possibly, face 'old' A Levels in the remaining subjects (Media, PE, Music, Drama…).

Will this mean that universities will be making different offers, depending on whether an A Level is a new or old? Or will they be like Twentieth Century travellers in Europe, fishing out a pocketful of coins and trying to find some sort of equivalence between the Lira, the Pesetas, the Francs (French and Swiss) and the Deutsche Marks?

Boy Asking Question With Pen In Hand

But this is where the fun is only just starting. AS levels - the halfway points of the A Level, which offer 50% of the final marks - will be killed. Except, they won't be. Or maybe they will be. They'll still exist, but they won't count towards A Levels. Except for the AS Levels in the Phase Two subjects - Maths and French and so on - which will still exist, and will still be vital, for a year or two longer.

But when the 'real' AS Levels have gone (and don't let's even think about what is happening with those subjects which aren't listed as being in either Phase One or Phase Two), we'll have these possibly rather peculiar half A Levels, lingering as a palimpsestic reminder of the way things once were.

Will these stand-alone qualifications matter? Will universities demand them as evidence of a student's progress during their first year of A Level study (in which case, we'll be returning, almost, to the situation that currently exists)?

Or will they be an irrelevance, left, unloved and forgotten about, in a cupboard in the Department for Education?  At the moment, we just don't know.

And when it comes to the new A Levels - and when is the key word, because, of course, the death of the old A Levels is going to be as long and as drawn out as the death of Grigori Rasputin - when they are finally dead and buried, will students be facing four subjects (as they do now) or three (as they did until the arrival of the old system in 2000 - when it was the new system)? It is all rather puzzling.

Pupil In Class

Of course, students will still learn, and have fun, and get worried about exams. They will still end up with grades that are better than they hoped for, or worse than they expected (or possibly even ones that are pretty much as they would have predicted). They will still end up going to university. The educational world will keep turning.  But, for a few years, things will not be exactly straightforward.

As you would expect, we are gathering sandbags, moving our valuables upstairs and checking the daily weather report. We have no intention of getting wet in this particular flood. But as the clouds gather, we are certainly investigating, and thinking, and talking. And waiting.

Our hand will be forced, to a very large extent, by the demands of the universities. And their hands will, in turn, be forced by what is being done by the majority of students who apply to them (that is, students in maintained schools). And the hand of the maintained schools will be forced, to some extent by the universities. So, we wait, as the Mexican stand-off between schools, universities, and the Department for Education persists.

The stand-off may not be at the forefront of the minds of the Psychology and Physics students who enter their exam hall over the next day or so. But we find ourselves at an important point for the future of Sixth Form students in England.

The coming terms will be fascinating!