After finishing my A levels in Edexcel French, OCR Economics and OCR Further Maths yesterday, I had a discussion with a friend (thanks Ben!) about why it was that our particular qualification is getting an increasingly bad name for itself. The common consensus is that the International Baccalaureate, with its six subjects and an extended essay, is a much more rigorous and challenging qualification. September 2008 sees the launch of the Cambridge Pre-U, another qualification that aims to compete against the already tainted brand of the traditional A level (bet that’s the first time you’ve heard that phrase without Labour being in the sentence… wink Oh wait.), and Imperial has just announced its plans to set its own entrance exams, its rector Sir Richard Sykes claiming that “We can’t rely on A levels any more.” In this article I’d like to explore how competition between A level exam boards breeds not excellence, but mediocrity, and I’m going to point the finger at a lesser-blamed culprit: you.

You may consider it harmless to treat all A level exam boards as the same – nobody announces which exam boards they are with, just how many As and in which subjects. But there is real danger in universities and employers treating them as a homogenous blob when they are anything but, and it leads to systematic failure of a downward spiralling reputation, afflicting anyone unfortunate enough to get caught up in it. There are two sides to why this is:

First of all, secondary schools and colleges (who make the decision on which exam board to subscribe to) want their students to achieve better grades so that they can move up league tables, especially if the ranking is linked to state funding (we will discuss the damage dealt by this target-driven culture in another article). One way of doing this is to subscribe to easier exam boards, lowering the standards but artificially inflating the grades the students get. And the reason why they’re getting away with this is because we (and universities and employers) do not distinguish between exam boards with varying difficulty. By making their exams easier, the A level exam boards get more subscriptions, but since we treat all exam boards the same, the cost to their reputation in doing so is spread out amongst all of them. It’s a negative externality which leads to an overproduction of easy A levels.

To give an easier illustration, three men (Mr. OCR, Mr. Edexcel and Mr. AQA wink) are sitting down to have dinner at a restaurant (surprisingly this is the second time I’ve described this example in the past week). Before the meal they’ve agreed to split the final bill equally three ways. Now Mr. OCR is looking at the menu and wondering whether to pick the £8 steak or the £9 fish. He values the £9 fish at £8.50 so in a Going Dutch circumstance the cost is greater than the benefit therefore he orders the steak. But in the described arrangement he faces only a third of the marginal cost (33p out of the £1 increase) therefore he rationally “over-orders” and chooses the fish, gaining 12p consumer surplus. Of course Mr. Edexcel and Mr. AQA will each be doing the same thing and ordering expensive dishes they wouldn’t have in a normal (more efficient) circumstance, all three of them losers at the end of the night – the winner being the restaurant.

If you don’t believe me then I’ll move to a closer link which is more directly applicable. Imagine a world where employers only look at the degree (First, 2:1, 2:2…) rather than the university it’s from. In this world, graduates with Firsts from Cambridge do not have any advantage in the labour market over those who graduate with a First from TVU. But it’s of conventional wisdom that Cambridge Firsts are harder to obtain (assume the employers are completely oblivious to this), therefore most people, attempting to ensure their First, will be going to universities which are reputable for being easy to get a First at. The only people going to Cambridge will be: 1) the people who enjoys studying for studying’s sake and 2) the people who are smart and confident enough that they’ll get a First from Cambridge anyway (we’ll discuss these people later). Therefore in this world, universities compete with each other downwards to see “how low they can go”, who can offer easier courses to get Firsts in. Think this is outlandish world devoid of reality? Think again. Just today Professor Geoffrey Alderman, formerly in charge of safeguarding standards at the University of London, accused universities of turning a blind eye to plagiarism in an attempt to boost degree results.

The keyword here is reputation. Firms invest heavily into a brand because they know it affects the consumers’ choice. But by pooling all A level exam boards into each other and treating different things the same, we are not allowing them the chance to build up a name for themselves so they are instead trying to lower boundaries, undercutting each other and passing on hits on reputation. If each of them are treated separately, they will have a brand to maintain and will try their best to safeguard it; there would be no room for complacency without the equal loss in credibility.

Now the reason why you don’t see this in the IB and the Pre-U is because that they each have a brand in their own right, and they compete upwards between themselves for prestige. They want to keep their image as the credible qualification which challenges pupils and provides a good step up onto higher education. They’re targeting an elite, niche market – the very people who will go to Cambridge anyway in the nightmare world visualised above. On the other hand you have A level exam boards continually serving the middle ground and vying for quantity over quality.

My policy proposals are these: greater scrutiny between exam boards (perhaps removing the “A level” name completely – “I’ve got an A in Edexcel Economics and two Bs in AQA Biology and Physics”); encourage a transparent and publically available Oxbridge-style “preferred subjects” list for each university and each course, so that schools and parents can make informed choices about the uses of each A level. This will increase accountability to full rather than just a fraction. If one exam board wishes to dilute its own brand by easing their papers then it is free to do so but it will also have to deal with the incurred costs on its own rather than spreading them out.

Of course, this proposal still depends on many things, the most important of which is school choice. Some schools will still try and move up league tables by forcing easy exam boards on pupils, but by allowing the parents to vote with their feet and remove their children, rather than being forced to go to a state school in their “catchment area” (essentially funding inferiority), schools are held accountable, will have to sharpen up their image and choose what’s best for the student. Civitas published a report yesterday on how state schools forced their pupils to take GCSEs over IGCSEs despite the latter holding a greater reputation for challenging its students. It seems absurd to me that British schoolchildren do not have the choice of benefiting from a British-developed qualification while the Swedes are. But the literature on school choice is many and I’ll leave that discussion for another day. Until then, start reporting which exam boards you’re with and fight back the odd stares by explaining why doing anything else leads to a worse education for all!

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