A-level reforms- asking the wrong questions?

Ben Harrow's picture
After a long time, this is my first discussion thrown up here, so bear with me!

I wanted to start a discussion about the prevalence and effect of re-takes in A-level exams today, and what might change if A-level reforms are brought in as a result of the Cambridge Assessment research, which I blogged about on Help Me Investigate Education)

There are a huge number of issues that don't seem to be key aims, like the fact that A-levels don't solely prepare students for tertiary education, along with the fact that re-takes are over-utilised and under-monitored, but most importantly, are free at some institutions but not at others.

I don't know, I'm mostly curious to see what the Cambridge Review brings to the table at the end of the month. Does anyone have any predictions?
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Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 12/04/2012 - 09:42

Further info re the Cambridge Review can be found by following the first link. The second link gives one example of how the review was misreported.



Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 12/04/2012 - 14:28

Retakes have their place, but there shouldn't be an infinite number of them. A limit of 2, with a guarantee they're free seems sensible.

More open-ended questions would be good too.

Ben Harrow's picture
Fri, 13/04/2012 - 10:22

I think a limit of one would be enough, especially since around 90% of students only retake a module once.

Maybe a three re-takes per year system? Three re-takes for A-S and between one-three for A-2 to encourage clever use of re-takes and equal out the benefits?

My main fear is that revamping a-levels with little mention of their use OUTSIDE of further education seems a little closed-minded. We don't want to broaden the gap between NVQ-style education or apprenticeships and traditional a-levels because it'll grow into a practical vs theory divide.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 13/04/2012 - 10:51

We don’t want to broaden the gap between NVQ-style education or apprenticeships and traditional a-levels because it’ll grow into a practical vs theory divide.

Why deny reality?
As we move to being a society where close to 50% go to uni and 50% don't, perhaps we should just learn to deal with that. Anxieties arise chiefly out of the fact there is not parity of esteem between the academic and vocational tracks. Arguably it would be better to fix that than to go on ducking the issue, living a lie...etc.

Ben Harrow's picture
Fri, 13/04/2012 - 12:52

My degree was 50% practical and 50% theory (and a media one) and I'm in no way ashamed of that; I also believe that people on apprenticeships need to be consistently and continually educated so they have better potential to progress through a career later in life.

In my head, s'all about the best of both. I don't see why that isn't achievable. It feels like if we do make that divide, where do young people decide whether they're uni potential or practical potential? In their GCSE choices/predictions? In their A-level choices?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 12/04/2012 - 17:08

HI Ben, is this for your BEd? Which year are you in?

Ben Harrow's picture
Fri, 13/04/2012 - 10:17

Hi Rebecca, I'm actually a recent (well, June last year) graduate, so I'm floating around various internships and things trying to get by! I was a Media and Comms (Journalism) student at BCU, however.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 13/04/2012 - 11:00

Sorry Ben,

I was just wondering if you had a particular level of assignment to deliver so I could point you to the right types of reference.

If instead you are really interested in learning how policy is developed in this kind of area I could put you in touch with some of best people who've been involved for years if you like.

The key think to understand is that policy will always jar with reality and so its important to ensure it does this to the least extent possible (by being properly analysed in detail against reality and modified to work with it) and that the processes of consultation are done in a way which build consensus and cooperation - i.e. they are inclusive and people have their chance to have their say in advance.

When this kind of think is done by QCA they would start by doing detailed analyses of each subject area - and that analysis would be done by specialists who've taught that subject for a long time and know the whole history of how examinations have progressed, where we have been and why we are as we are.

They would then hold discussions to see if there are communalities or issues arising which lead to general cross-curricular conclusions which may require policy intervention. In reality many of them will have worked for exam boards too so they will ensure they are absolutely up to date with current and intended developments and a great deal of mentoring and influence will take place to ensure likely policy direction is understood and everyone can plan for it to the best extent possible.

In reality, however, it is very difficult to achieve changed because teachers are saturated with policies which are generated by politicians. So for example not so long ago ACME consulted extensively on this issue in maths and came to the conclusion that it was necessary to restructure A-level maths syllabus to ensure final modules were combined and synoptic questions asked. But the proposals fell apart because the of the recent multiple shifts in numbers of modules at A-level and the the previous introduction of AS level maths. The whole system - publishers, exam bodies, and teachers were at breaking point and they simply said they couldn't cope with any more no matter how important it was.

The best people to talk to if you want to rapidly understand the topic are some of the very brilliant and respected specialists who were at QCA and are now mainly in academic roles. If you want to find me on linkedin.com I could introduce you to some if you're serious about getting real insight into this topic.

Alternatively you may like to look at the schedule of consultations for the Westminster Education Forum and see if there's a relevant session coming up which you could attend. This is a good forum within which to hear plenty of perspective form different branches of education. But I think you will struggle to understand the realities of these issue properly because you do not have relevant experience.

One thing to be aware of is that Michael Gove has been deliberately employing young people with very little experience to tell him what he wants to hear, because nobody with relevant experience does that because their experience enables the to see the very obvious horrific consequences of those policies.

More information here:

Do feel free to link to me through linkedin.com if you'd like me to introduce you to people who know a heck of a lot more about this topic than I do.

Ben Harrow's picture
Fri, 13/04/2012 - 13:00

No, working purely voluntarily and, although in an openly messy student-like fashion, I blog for the sake of the issues and just to promote myself and the platform (HMI Education).

But, wrapped up in that, I would love to learn more so I feel more educated on the subject and have a better leg to stand on when it comes to these kind of issues (your linked.in group states it very clearly; people much younger, with little practical experience in the field, have to (or at least should have to) do a lot to earn their stripes and reputation).

I did add you on linked.in too. Love to see what I can gain when it comes to being much more educated in the field; I'm an appreciator of data if that helps, and you can see more of the education work I've done here:


Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 13/04/2012 - 16:42

:) I can see the way you are thinking and you remind me a lot of me in my early 20s. The issues of professional freedom and diversity in education have always fascinated me and at that time, because the rigid National Curriculum was a new idea and I was concerned about how we could regenerate the healthy diversity and opportunities for teacher input which had been lost.

I thought a lot, in particular, about how we could let schools have different specialities and focii and also about how would could provide for diversity in the way we studied other countries. I though it was important that different schools studied different parts of global geography and history and different languages rather than everyone studying the same thing and I started to think about how this could be achieved.

I wanted to write about this stuff and I remember I had a ding dong row about with my dad who was absolutely clear that I had no right to comment until I'd been out there and properly done it. I'm so glad he won his point.

In my first three years of teaching - while I was still responsibility free - I took on a volunteer role for the British Council supporting the introduction of computers into teaching there. It just so happened that the British Council were looking for a new vision at that time and I was able to influence those discussions to push for them supporting British schools in twinning with schools around the world (based on the vision of direct person to person linking created through the post war European town twinning program but ICT based).

Now I see that project advertised on the telly and I've watched my son's assembly on his school's twin school in Ghana - where his teacher has taught and has gathered video and pictures of the real lives of children his age to add to their internet research.

How would that have been possible if I had not been a teacher?

But there's no hurry Ben - enjoy your freedom. Rather than interning have you thought of temping? It was probably easier for me as a girl but I loved the warts and all insights I got into directors' lives. I chose to work my way across the city and many key institutions in London as an invisible temp secretary. Nobody suspected I was a Cambridge graduate in management analysing their managerial styles and corporate cultures. :) Great stuff. Oh and I went and taught EFL in Hong Kong as well - teaching young children English with songs, crafts and games. It was great. I could have taught secondary maths but I knew I was going to do that in the long term anyway so I chose the interesting option out there and worked in an entirely Chinese environment.

Have fun!

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 10:11

One other think I'd like to recommend for you Ben is that at this stay you read biographies of people who've achieved great things in education. It'll give you a really good insight into the struggles they faced and the decisions they made at your stage in life.

Some of the top ones are:
Ahead of the Class by Marie Stubbs
Sister Genevieve by John Rae
and if you don't fancy actually teaching but still really want to make a difference there's
3 Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.

If there's anything in you that's tempted by the SPAD route into education then you should inflict something like Class War by Chris Woodhead on yourself so you can compare and contract the quality of the people involved.

Ben Harrow's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 12:43

Thank you Rebecca, I'll take a look!

Re: mentioning interning vs temping, I'm working on anything I can get! Media, journalism, research, etc: I'm casting the net pretty broad and just trying to keep myself working and gaining experience. I did, sort of, fall into education as a topic but it's an interesting one I'll follow where possible. It's a really stressful time, especially when thinking about the fact that literally a week after I got this internship I'd have had to start applying for, basically, any job (JSA). Just doing what I can and learning as much as I can in the mean time. But thanks for the advice ^^!

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 12:45

Have you signed up with temp secretarial agencies Ben?

Ben Harrow's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 13:23

No, but I'm assuming you're recommending! Any specific direction?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 13:37

I started with a small agency in North London and built my confidence in walking into a variety of situations and handling them confidently while exploring some very interesting places (like Brent Council :) )

When I'd worked out what I liked doing and what I was good at I moved to agencies which would get me into the city companies I wanted to understand at director level. I mainly did holiday cover because I wanted short placements to get wide experience but at one bank I ended up pretty much organising a massive conference for all their execs at Penny Hill Park and Hampton Court which was most illuminating.

As an intern companies will show you want they want you to see. As a secretary it's totally different :). Especially if you're a girl. So here's some inspiration: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Some-Like-It-Hot-Special/dp/B00005Q61Q/ref=sr_1_...

Ben Harrow's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 13:55

So the best recommendation is an open mind and a sex change operation? I'll keep that in mind should my situation get desperate.

:'). Thank you Rebecca.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 14:15

Oh a bit of waxing and some lippy would do it....
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdrw8Ve4cpg&feature=related :-)

No seriously - you have to think about the way you look. Black trousers and a white shirt rather than a proper posh suit if you see what I mean? Get yourself a London accent unless you're in trading in which case don't.
After all you don't want to look an exec. because when you all go out drinking after work the execs pay for everything and the support staff pay for nothing.....

Ben Harrow's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 14:59

Already in that trend, my office is quite nice and relaxed and suit trousers and a variety of combinations of shirts, jumpers and ties get me through the week with some interest. And my accent is bland and average, since I'm from Telfordn (which although midlands is such a mish-mash of people that I genuinely have an accent classified as 'average').

It's sad that all I want is to be busy and employed, really. That shouldn't be too difficult an ask!

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 16:16

If you want to be busy and employed why are you doing internships?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 16:28

Bit trite. What real work have you done and what do you actually want to do Ben? Fairer question I think.

Ben Harrow's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 20:11

Hahaaaa, don't worry! I take that question as a fair question.

It's genuinely all the work I could get. Times are that tough. I got a 2:1 in my degree, work experence with people like Paul Bradshaw and currently working with Fiona (of this site) but I can't find work as a journalist/copywriter/media anything.

Since my degree, I've done a few placements and this major internship I'm on at the moment. Smaller projects are all that are available!

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 20:58

What happened to the days when people worked in MacDonald's, bars, supermarkets, whatever until they could get better jobs?

Ben Harrow's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 21:29

Hahaa, I was consistently doing whatever freelance/for free work I could do in the mean-time, don't worry, I wasn't sitting on my hands!

What didn't help was that there isn't a way to get job-seekers and do placements; for some bizarre reason, it's one or the other. I had to turn down unpaid work experience placements that were full or part-time in exchange for having money, when realistically doing both was the sensible option that just isn't facilitated. Why have me sit at home unable to gain more skills and apply for jobs at the same time?

It's a messy system. And it's stressful. and, with the way things are at the moment, you add a full-time job to trying to do freelance work and improve your skills, and there just isn't time. Where I'm from orignally, you just feel like you're going to get stuck forever if you don't get out and get a graduate job. It's a rough time Rebecca, I feel I have to try and defend my generation!

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 21:56

I'm genuinely interested. Thanks for taking the time to try and explain. I don't quite follow your second paragraph though. Is it the case that if you do an internship you don't get JSA?
Are interships so intensive you can't work in a bar at night? So much for the minimum wage.....

Being in your early 20s has always been grotty Ben. Most grads from most generations have taken some time to find their feet. There never has been an age when there were loads of cush grad jobs. Some of my friends got them. Most didn't. Most ended up back at home working at Greggs, getting basic office jobs,wondering why they did degrees. The old CD sets of 'Friends' get dumped in the bin when people realise they don't show how tough life as a 20something is - they show a totally unrealistic fantasy where people can afford to live in big flats in Greenwich Village.

I can talk about the freedom you have to be anonymous and incognito but really I do know that that's rather like telling the woman who's 10 days overdue and going mental with boredom and impatience to 'enjoy her freedom while it lasts'... You may not have come across that situation yet but if you ever do and you use that phrase I advise you to duck. :-)

Ben Harrow's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 22:06

Internships vary, but the pressure of leaving JSA and getting a job whilst starting a new internship is pretty hefty, and when you feel like you aren't going to get the most of it. You can't do any unpaid work whilst on JSA. Realistically, the only reason you can't do free work whilst on JSA is because you're supposed to be looking for jobs. And that isn't a full time job, and can definitely be done alongside. Very, very stupid system.

I'm happy where I am now, it's just frustrating knowing you're good at what you do and not being able to apply it anywhere! Let's just hope I keep getting opportunities now I'm getting a solid 3-month media company internship under my belt.

Also, I think working part-time and doing an internship means moving back to Birmingham/London and commuting. And that adds up in cost and time, and it's pretty difficult to get by, for sure. That's if things align and you can actually find part-time work.

I guess the one good thing is that graduates aren't AS down about it because they know it's a rough situation for everyone. Not making excuses, but it's worse than it's ever been for people coming out of education at any level.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 16/04/2012 - 23:13

"You can’t do any unpaid work whilst on JSA. Realistically, the only reason you can’t do free work whilst on JSA is because you’re supposed to be looking for jobs. And that isn’t a full time job, and can definitely be done alongside. Very, very stupid system."

Yes - you're right.

I also think people across society should be offering those who are out of work all sorts of opportunities - I'm decorating my house - come and help me. I'm a struggling single mum come and help me - I'm in the process of setting up my own business - come and watch me - so people can select opportunities to help them develop their general skills, become more aware of the realities of the world around them as adults and also be mentored by people who care and want to give them the time of day. It's a big society thing which forums and natural community networks could really empower. Basically people say what they are doing and what they're inviting people to come and join them in doing and job seekers decide what they'd like to go to. People who are job seeking can organise stuff for themselves and others too.

Ben Harrow's picture
Tue, 17/04/2012 - 08:33

That's the key thing; we're not all lazy chavvy pies, but if you treat us like that, it takes an AWFUL lot of will to keep pushing and keep trying to get skills and experience when the prospects look so bleak. I'm a little bit more optimistic now, since I think what my CV was lacking was a long-term, in office, full-time placement, which is now starting to be filled in.

But yes; JSA didn't help. Just feels like a quagmire and when you're a graduate with specific job aims like me, the system can do very, very little to help you. Any help, apprenticeships and other things they offer are normally for first time workers with little education, and they basically just say "urmmmm... look at the gov.uk website?" which has enough journalism work available for one person to do freelance and that's about it.

You;re right Rebecca; it's difficult to set up, but any extra human aspect to the system would do wonders. And let people do work experience whilst on JSA. That's also a simple one.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 17/04/2012 - 11:47

I don't understand this idea of long-term, in office, full-time placements. Why not just temp as a secretary/admin person?

If I were you I would work at MaccyDees/temp/whatever and just do journalism in your spare time until you learn to be good at it. You'll learn something of the world you intend to write about along the way.

What's a lazy chavvy pie?

Ben Harrow's picture
Tue, 17/04/2012 - 12:05

The kind of person that the majority of the public assume someone on JSA to look/be/act like.

And, a placement specifically in a publishing house/online journalism platform/newspaper/magazine is something that is big for a CV like mine; written for different platforms, done some good investigative stuff, thinking the right things, but no evidence of spending a solid period of time working. Doing the administrative stuff, putting in the hours, etc. it's all well and good doing two weeks here and there, but it leaves a big gap.

I feel I'm pretty solid as I am; at least solid enough for a starter position. it's just competitive. And that's the world a grad lives in today ^^!

Ben Harrow's picture
Tue, 17/04/2012 - 12:08

Sorry, should explain that better; being a part-time journalism and writing copy for various sites/blogs etc is all well and good, but you don't have a developing, evolving CV. You look the same to an employer who will only look at where and who you've worked with, and maybe a few examples of your best work on the better publications. Stalling that with a part-time job and more of the same copy-writing experience is, in my eyes, being stagnant. I suppose.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 17/04/2012 - 13:35

"The kind of person that the majority of the public assume someone on JSA to look/be/act like."
Bunkum. Most people have friends and family you know so they do understand the real world.

I remember feeling like that. Linkedin is very liberating I think because you start to realise - even through the polished veneers (I really should get one of those) that people's CVs are not quite what you intend yours to be.

"Stalling that with a part-time job and more of the same copy-writing experience is, in my eyes, being stagnant. I suppose."
I think you could do with losing a few of your inhibitions. Prove me wrong. Link me a to good bit of investigative journalism you've done.

Ben Harrow's picture
Tue, 17/04/2012 - 13:51

Hahaaa, I understand that it was a very sweeping statement, but JSA seems to be built around the people who need to be forced into work, not the people who are desperately looking for anything to help themselves become more employable. It's a self-facilitating negative image.

I'm happy with my CV having good references and a variety of experiences, just trying to expand that!

And more data than investigative (but still had to dig and sift data) was this:


Amusingly, if you google things like "will I ever pay off my student loan" this comes up :'). Used average graduate starting wage, graduate earnings premiums and other things to try and suggest that the average graduate won't pay off their student loan.... ever. I think it was pretty innovative, well researched and used numbers and data in a good way.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 17/04/2012 - 15:15

"Link me a to good bit of investigative journalism you’ve done."

Investigative journalism is where you find out things people don't want you to know Ben.

Why would someone employ you to write that article rather than a math grad?

Ben Harrow's picture
Tue, 17/04/2012 - 15:30

Because I have a strong journalism background (including data work) and an A in A-level mathematics ^^. An employer in the know would realise that what you would study in a Mathematics degree would be completely irrelevant to manipulating data and using Excel (since the majority of degree-level math is using letters rather than numbers!), and experience with data, advanced use of Excel and incorporating that into writing is more important.

I understand that many employers will see my CV in the same way as you just read that information. But, when you meet people and show them that work, or are in an interview situation where you can explain, the confidence you have in numbers and data in journalism should come through.

And, technically, I don't think the government proposing the higher fees would want people to see that information! I also think that it was useful for students to see that the chances were that they would pay less towards their higher education, but that the government had done an AWFUL PR job when trying to explain why they'd upped the tuition fee cost as well as the wage limit where you start paying back the loan.

Also, see this recent investigation I did for HMI Education looking at the cost of student non-completions to universities:


And I believe investigative journalism is finding out information that isn't in the public eye but is in the public interest, and letting people absorb it how they see fit. Not so much finding out things people don't want you to know.

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