6          The Sixth Form

In considering the achievements of the British Sixth Form, international comparisons are instructive and again we can look at Germany.  Table 6 (Refs 3 and 4) sets out some figures.

1988 School Leavers in UK (18+ with at least 2 A-levels or 3 Scottish H-levels) and at least 5 O-levels equivalent;with 1 A-level and some O-levels 16.5% of age group 4.1%
Those (at 19+) taking the qualifying examination (Abitur) in Germany for higher education about 20%

Table 6: VI Form comparison with Germany

While the Abitur was formerly a written test in at least four subjects, the figures above apply to the new form of the examination, which consists of written papers in two main subjects and one optional subject at a lower level, plus an oral examination in another option.  The range must include mathematics or natural science, a foreign language and German.  The foreign language chosen is usually English.

When it is recalled that the vast majority of British entrants to university have, over the years, entered with three A-levels, plus seven or more O-level equivalents spread across the subject range, it is not apparent from the data why the British system is consistently criticised as being uniquely narrow (Ref 5).

7          Breadth and Depth

The major real difference between the British sixth form and the German current system is that most British universities demand mathematics and physics or chemistry for engineering and science courses, while the Germans demand either one or the other, plus a foreign language.  The old British O-level has no equivalent in either system, but all the currently degree qualified people in Britain have gone through that system (or its predecessor, the matriculation certificate).  Properly taught and examined, a combination of say eight O-levels (English, a modern foreign language, maths, physics, chemistry, history, English literature) plus three A-levels (not all of which have to be pure Science or Arts) and the general paper can be achieved by the 18-22% going into higher education.  It is not so long ago in fact that universities required O-level passes in English, maths and a modern foreign language for any course.

And this is the key point.  it is not that the system is narrow, it is that the Permissive philosophy has, by its sloppy approach, narrowed much of the output.  Universities have reduced their breadth requirements to match.  Restore an O-level equivalent and we can quickly have breadth and A-level depth again – a system as good as and probably better than rival systems.

8          Eight things to do quickly

(a)        Standards

As a guarantee of standards in the whole system, the Universities should affirm that they will hold the entry standards where they are now.  There will be no further talk of slackening the exit degree standard: this is the educational Alamein line – no further retreat.

(b)        Examinations

Examining Boards should be instructed to restore A-level standards to 1987/88 levels with no crib sheets provided[9].  And AS-levels should be modified to represent half-way to an A-level. The Oxford Delegacy Boards should be instructed, under the restraint of trade legislation, to offer the O-level exams which they presently offer to overseas pupils (including those resident in this country) to British pupils and schools.

(c)        Streaming

To enable a common age intake of pupils to achieve these standards, a self-selecting academic stream of say 30% should be identified at age 13-14 and allowed to take GCSE or O-level at 15 and commence A-level work in what is now the fifth year (many independent schools have done this for years).  AS-levels could be taken in say six subjects at sixteen and a half, leaving the three or four A-level pattern fully attainable by age 18 for say 60% of the academic stream.

(d)        B.Tec Courses

Subject to passing the 14+ foundation tests (see 6 below), pupils should be allowed at 15+ to leave school and pass to B.Tec courses in Colleges of Further Education.  B.Tec should be modified to retain studies in English and an option from history, geography and a language.  It should be recognised that most schools do not have the equipment or staff to mount the B.Tec courses and to attempt to replicate the colleges of Further Education would be a monumental waste of resources.

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