In a recent speech, widely reported in the press, Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, Nobel Prize winning biologist and President of the Royal Society, declared that A Levels are no longer “fit for purpose”. He said that recent reforms mean that students are now taking a narrower mix of subjects and consequently have a less broad and less flexible skill set. In particular, students taking STEM subjects are not developing the language skills they need to express the complex ideas in their field of study or work, while students taking arts or humanities subjects need to acquire the analytical skills developed by mathematics and the sciences. Similar views have been expressed by a number of prominent academics and industrialists in recent years.
In my view, this concern over narrowness is a valid one. Of course, the purpose of A Levels never was to provide a broad range of skills. A Levels were designed as examinations to select the students best prepared to take on particular specialist degree courses at top universities. For this purpose, they are still very fit. The problem arises when getting good grades at A Level is seen as the sole purpose of a Sixth Form education. Sir Venki Ramakrishnan advocates that the UK learns from A Level alternatives such as the International Baccalaureate.
The IB Diploma incorporates a broader range of subjects than A Level. At Taunton School, over two hundred students have now completed the IB Diploma since we first offered it ten years ago, and many have come back to say how much those additional subjects have helped them at University or in employment.
To address the issue of breadth for A Level students, we have recently redesigned our sixth form timetable under the banner of “3 plus”. What this means is that it is possible to take three full A Levels and then add a “plus”. This could be an IB component such as a modern language (perhaps from scratch), Maths Studies or an Extended Essay. It could also be an Extended Project from AQA or our excellent non-examined Critical Thinking course. While not giving the full subject range covered by the IB Diploma, the “3 plus” offer does provide our A Level students with an exciting extra to broaden their skill base.
On top of their taught curriculum, be it the IBDP, “3 plus” A Levels or our very successful BTEC course, all Taunton School students benefit hugely from our extensive co-curricular and enrichment programme (see Miss Mortimer’s ‘Heads Up’ column earlier this term). The purpose of a Sixth Form education should be more than merely passing examinations to get you to the next rung of the ladder of life. It is about growing in all areas, personally as well as academically, to prepare to make a significant and positive contribution to the world later in life.