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Sam Nassiri: The dangers of the qualifications marketplace

Nassiri SamSam Nassiri was an intern at Bright Blue, and will study Politics at York University this autumn. He is writing in a personal capacity.

The Daily Telegraph claims the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma to be a means of fixing English students' lack of foreign language skills, as it forces all students to take a second language. Michael Gove wants more schools to offer the IB, as well as other alternatives to the A-level, such as the Cambridge Pre-U. Is it right that he should continue to encourage a marketplace of qualifications, whereby schools have a choice of examinations for post-16 students?

The market for post-16 qualifications is divided in three main ways. First, students have the opportunity to take either a more vocational route or an academic route. Second, if they follow the academic route, they increasingly have a choice of whether to take A-levels, IB or Pre-U. Third, if they take A-levels, they can take exams from different boards: for example, Edexcel or Cambridge Assessment.

Some argue that this plurality in qualifications enables greater choice, which will drive up the standards of the examinations on offer. But it is hard to see how the quality of examinations will be improved by a qualifications market. Many schools and pupils have an incentive in choosing exams which are in effect easier. Indeed, the grade inflation which Professor Robert Coe, an academic from Durham University, has observed in A-levels, could be partially attributed to the diversity of examination board on offer, all competing for the custom of schools.

The most important consumer of post-16 qualifications is universities or employers: it gives them an indicator of the quality of the people they are looking to recruit. So it’s good that the Secretary of State for Education wants to involve universities more in the design of the A-level curriculum; there is also a case for employers being involved, however. The risk is that universities and employers look for rigorous qualifications - and the qualifications chosen by students and schools, especially in more deprived areas looking for better results, do not match their expectations. We can see this pattern with subject choices: those from more deprived areas are much more likely to take subjects such as Citizenship and Film Studies. But these subjects are evidently not valued as much by certain universities.

What I think is needed is a high-quality standardised pre-university qualification delivered by one examination board  This would end the incentives of schools and students to choose easier examinations, and prevent students in some schools being unfairly penalised. Indeed, the advocates of choice often overlook the fact that students, especially those from poorer backgrounds, can't afford the luxury of crammer colleges, and only get one shot at acquiring a place at university. Any mistakes during sixth form studies are not so easily forgiven.

There are many who agree that A-Levels are in need of reform, but one begins to verge on dangerous grounds when freedom of qualifications becomes a quick solution to improving schools standards. Schools with the ability and teaching clout will choose qualifications which are harder to deliver but valued more by universities, while those in need of improvement will seek easier exams, hindering their students' chances.


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