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Time for another round of A Level Reform?

This piece was originally published on TheStudentWord

I come from a school which had a history doing incredibly poorly at GCSEs (it was put under special measures for a good few years) and by the time I came to do my A Levels, it was only the 3rd of 4th year that the Sixth Form had been up and running. We’ve seen the disaster that’s come about as a result of A Level exams being suspended: students getting their results from a combination of predictions and how well the school has done in the past. Judging current students on the history of the school’s results was the wrong way to go about it. At the end of the day, this is people's lives we’re talking about. Just because a poor person usually does badly shouldn’t mean that another poor person also does badly. What happened to the level playing field?

It is absolutely appalling to see, especially as I myself am a member of the Conservative Party. The shambols of today have really highlighted several things to me. Firstly, governments should not be in charge of the results (honestly, who thought THAT was a good idea?) and secondly why young people prefer the Labour Party over the Tories (and I sympathize a significant amount!) Having spoken to some friends with results out today and seeing Twitter flooded, the shambolic handling of this has put people’s lives on hold, and that is not right - in the slightest.

In the days leading up to results day, we were told 40% of results would be downgraded. Imagine, after having spent so many hours putting in an insane amount of effort, being told that your hard work would not be paid off and to top it off: Ofqual have sent out a warning saying that “appealing against a grade will affect other students from the same school because of the rank order system.” Again, why on earth should one person's success hinder another?

Because of the mess created with so much uncertainty, one major lesson schools and colleges could learn from higher education and universities is from the way universities assess students. Having just completed my undergraduate degree rather successfully at DMU, I found that having assessments throughout the year was extremely beneficial. Yes, it was stressful (especially when deadlines were close together) but the flexibility to tailor what I wrote in assignments to what I knew and especially this year – assessing more than memory, I took the decision to take several risks with what I wrote about. Thankfully, it paid off and I received a very high first.

One of the major benefits to modular coursework is that, if for whatever reason exams can’t take place – like in the six month scenario that just happened – you can still base students’ grades off some form of assessment rather than mocks which don’t hold the same rigour as normal exams anyway or the potentially opinionated teacher that thinks you’re a lazy little shit that won’t ever leave your estate. Also, if your parents suddenly die in a car accident, you can defer your coursework for a month and give yourself breathing room. The A Level exam system is so rigid and harsh on young people – treating their lives as perfect railway lines than never fault when in fact most university students have deferred at least one assessment. I’ve deferred countless number for a host of very good reasons – often being made to by my lecturers - that an A Level examiner wouldn’t even consider.

Over my final year at University: I took 4 modules and had a variety of assignments, and the weightings did differ, but it was manageable. Below is a breakdown of what I submitted in final year:

1 Essay (written in the form of a policy paper) weighted 60%

1 Essay (written in the form of a critical reflection) weighted 40%

3 Essays weighted 50%

1 Presentation weighted 50%

1 Poster weighted 20%

1 Dissertation weighted 80%

The flexibility of writing assignments, being creative with how I portrayed my ideas. This year I wrote a letter, diary entry, and an opinion piece, but pretended it was written by someone who believed something different to me, using a pseudonym and knowing I could speak to lecturers about my ideas, having the support to run with it and sending goodness knows how many emails in a day, meant the risks paid off. Education is supposed to encourage individual thought not suppress it.

Now imagine if that were the case at A Level. I understand for some subjects - exams are a must, but I personally don't see the point in having to do so many hours of revision for an exam which may last a maximum of 2 hours and then forget it all afterwards, still getting an A*. What happens if you have a bad day – your mum dies or you have a nervous breakdown, or the nerves - as a result of an insane amount of pressure gets to you. We know that there is a correlation between an increase in academic pressure and rise in mental health problems, further having a negative effect on you when you get your results and it looks like you did not try hard enough. That's not the purpose of education. Education is about learning about the world that surrounds us and developing your own ideas - not having how successful you are in life determined by how you perform in an exam.

Additionally, by having a combination of assessments and the flexibility to portray your ideas, the way you want too, ultimately means you have more time to actually do things; get ‘real’ experience in the field you are most interested in, the field you want to go into. How many times have you heard the phrase “young people don't live in the real world” - I mean how can you, if your entire time at school is spent learning how to successfully complete an exam? Realistically, by having a combination of set pieces of coursework and time to get other experience, it massively equips young people, it is beneficial for the up and coming workforce.

Education is supposed to help you to be a successful person and not something to hinder you. I know it's not the only tool, but I genuinely think that by changing the structure - to something similar to universities, more people would be better prepared for life and actually learn something.

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