When is a Bac not the ABac?

Recent reports in The Times suggesting that Michael Gove has already decided on the details of a new ABac seem a little premature.   Unusually the response from the educational establishment has been decidedly muted with barely a whisper of either support or derision.   Rather than a revelation of the true 'ABac' it increasingly appears that these sources at least have simply uncovered just another 'Bac'.   However, what The Times and the deafeningly quiet response to the story have revealed are the beginnings of a possible consensus amongst educationists.   In this context it is perhaps a disappointing that there has been so little response in the media as it would help enormously those charged with responding to the A level consultation to know where there is common ground.

With this in mind it is worth considering elements of the ABac proposal that point to a possible consensus.   The time for the linear AS has certainly come with no January modules and a freestanding qualification taken either at the end of Year 12 or even at the end of Year 13 (for those wishing to continue their linear approach to the full A level).   The natural consequence of a linear AS is a linear A2, again removing the need for distracting and time-consuming January modules.   So far so good, but what the proposal omits are the answers to two crucial questions: what is the balance between the AS and A2 components (50:50, as at present, or perhaps a more sensible 40:60 to reflect the added depth of the A2), and how are they to be assessed?  

The consensus now demands a more rigorous A2 and a scheme of assessment that has sufficient reliability, whilst at the same time having the validity to cover the full range of knowledge, understanding and skills: what the assessment experts term 'dependable' assessment outcomes.   The ABac story is surprisingly silent on such key issues, all the more worrying in the context of this summer's GCSE English debacle and the HMC report The English examinations system: years of deterioration and neglect.   Assessment is a key issue and those responsible for providing the details of the new A levels or ABac (or whatever it will be called) will need to be very sure-footed in an area that has consistently put too many banana skins in the path of ministers, exam boards and regulators alike.

And what of the proposed 5000-word essay?   Are we really talking about an essay or is this loose language for a project?     If it is an essay then how will exam boards reconcile the clear disparities in performance between a well-versed humanities student for whom the essay is simply a longer version of something that is an intrinsic component of their AS and A2 portfolio and a physical scientist for whom their only contact with essay writing might be the proposed compulsory humanity at AS level?   Where is the fairness in that, and how will universities use the essay as a discriminator in choosing the best scientists and mathematicians?   The simple answer is that they will not, and the opportunity to carry out a valuable piece of extended research (aka The Extended Project Qualification) lost.

Similarly the apparent requirement to carry out voluntary service as part of the ABac requires some clarification.   Is this really voluntary service or do we mean compulsory community service?   It does not sound very voluntary if they have to do it!   And surely there is another element of the consensus here that again could be lost in sloppy wording and lack of conviction.   Since all 16-18 year olds will be in education and training then perhaps it should be a requirement for all of them to do some form of unpaid community service, not just those trying to get top grades in a new ABac.  

Remember David Cameron's 'big society' well perhaps the new ABac might just be the start of something bigger where all young people give something to their communities without monetary reward.   But if this is the big society then please do not let it only apply to the poor souls trying to complete four or five AS and A2 courses, compulsory games and a 5000-word essay!

So why was there such a silence following the report in The Times?   Were we all thinking about the half term holiday or the next inspection?   Or have we come to the conclusion that Michael Gove will simply do what he plans to do, whatever the respondents to the consultation say?   I for one hope not because by putting the ABac into the public domain The Times has provided a great opportunity to stress where the consensus lies before the final decisions are made in the corridors of Whitehall.   Put in its simplest terms, we should be prepared to push for a qualification that recognises the strengths and abilities of all students, insists on the completion of an individual extended project, and allows sufficient time for innovative teaching and dependable assessment.   It is not much to ask for, is it, even if it is only another Bac and not necessarily the definitive ABac? 

Ian Power, Membership Secretary, HMC