By James Percival, School of Education, Oxford Brookes University
The status of A levels, and whether they are getting easier, harder or prepare students adequately for either further study or employment, are important and ongoing questions, and will probably never be completely or satisfactorily answered. For a variety of complex reasons, I recently had the experience of retaking my Geography A level after a gap of 30 years: I think I can offer some insights.
In 1981 I achieved an ‘O’ grade: it was a fair reflection of a two year programme that started promisingly in the Christmas exams, became a descending straight-line graph of ineptitude towards dreadful mock results, followed by a last minute flurry of cramming that came just too late. Considering that I entered the sixth form with Geography as ostensibly my best subject, and with vague, inchoate ideas of studying the subject at university, it was a disappointing result, but entirely just.
Three decades later, after a long and successful career as a primary teacher, and more recently in teacher training, a move to humanities teaching motivated me to tackle this blot in my copy book. The fact that I work full-time as a university lecturer, have two young children and am currently in my third year of a part-time doctorate, made me a slightly unusual candidate to say the least. I registered as a private candidate with the local adult education centre and bought the two recommended textbooks; this meant no support or tuition, just access to the examinations. Initially I studied all the topics rather than focusing on four options; I found the breadth of the GEOG1 syllabus, human and physical geography, both interesting and informative, and I did notice some parallels with my original A level work, particularly in physical geography.
This begged the question of what I could recall from my original A level study, especially given the fact that my files disappeared many years ago. I recall that the JMB syllabus we used in my state comprehensive was a comparatively new one, and required new textbooks and materials that must have imposed serious challenges for the teachers, and uncertainty about how it would have been tested. In particular the human geography element was very much based on patterns of settlement, and the theories of von Thünen and Weber, and was not particularly interesting or inspiring. Possibly I was too young and immature to really engage with theoretical models, but they all seemed to lack relevance and explanatory power. As I recall, virtually no real pattern of settlement ever matched the theoretical models, so it was hard to become too enthused by them! I would argue that the AQA 2030 syllabus, with its concentration on environmental and world issues, is far more engaging and important, but possibly dilutes the geography with too much economics, history and politics. Yet human geography is inextricably linked with other academic disciplines, and so this is an understandable development.
Booking the exams was surprisingly painless both financially and administratively, and I opted for the two AS exams in January, followed by two A2 exams in May, assuming success in the former. Overall I found my studies enjoyable and I looked forward to doing them, and I think that my teenage self would have done too, but I continued to struggle to find time and only managed about 30 hours prior to the AS exams, about a sixth of the recommended amount of study. Of course I was hoping to rely on thirty years of experience, wisdom and added maturity, but in truth I found the first exam a surprisingly challenging experience. A particular challenge was the AS study skills paper since this ostensibly included field work. It should have been helped by the fact that I have studied research methods at doctoral level, and sometimes teach them on master’s programmes, and indeed it did seem to go well, albeit hampered by the lack of any actual field work other than a brief look at some census information online. Making comparisons can be difficult, but the inclusion of skills such as Spearman’s correlation for non-parametric data was simply a matter of completing a table and then carrying out the calculation rather than understanding the underlying mathematical principles, or adopting a critical stance towards its use or reliability. So there is a prima facie case for saying that there is an identifiable difference between A level work (level 3) and postgraduate studies at level 7. Nevertheless, no amount of understanding can compensate for the lack of actual field work.
So, those looking for an easy and uncritical reinforcement of the lazy belief that A levels are now much easier and less challenging should look away now. I was expecting a C, hoped for a B, and was therefore somewhat taken aback to receive a D for GEOG1, human and physical geography, and C for the GEOG 2, study skills, for an overall D grade. Whilst clearly more time would have helped, I was left feeling a little bruised and with an increasing respect for A level standards.
I then sat the A2 papers in May 2011; once again time was short and I only managed 30 hours of study, mostly in the evenings. I felt that the main exam on Contemporary Geographical Issues, GEOG3, was both challenging and rewarding. I chose the option of plate tectonics for physical geography, and globalisation and world cities for human geography, and for each I felt I learned a lot of useful information and increased insight concerning important world issues. I then opted to take the current geographical issue paper, GEOG 4B, in lieu of field work. This too was informative and increased my understanding about an important world issue, in this case the vulnerability of Bangladesh to climate change, particularly cyclones and rising sea levels. I was better prepared, especially in the latter paper, and so I was not unduly surprised to receive a D for GEOG3, and an A grade for 4B, which resulted in an overall grade of C.
The fact that I gained an A grade in the one paper where I actually had breathing space to find some essential web sites and relevant research papers, and time to look at previous papers, is probably indicative on the amount of background reading that is required to get a higher grade, and I would argue that it is comparable with A levels from 30 years ago. I can certainly recall one of my geography teachers remarking at the outset that her notes would be good enough for a C, but for those wishing to gain higher grades, wider reading would be required. However, I cannot remember anyone actually doing so, and I strongly suspect that in most contemporarysixth forms, far more guidance and support will be given to students capable of the higher grades. In the case of my year group, I am fairly certain that it produced a disappointing set of results, with no-one achieving an A.
Perhaps a telling example of how much better prepared modern A level students are than my generation was the example of my invitation to attend a Geographical Association lecture at a sixth-form given by a very prestigious university professor who then produced a truly inspiring and informative hour long lecture followed by a lengthy question and answer session. The nearest equivalent from my sixth form days was a visit to our local university to attend a lecture provided for local sixth forms; at the very least it lacked the power and intimacy of the Association lecture, and was also a one off rather than a regular occurrence.
A 60 hour A level is a tough challenge whatever one’s age, experience or level of education. Against that, I had studied the subject before for two years, and I was able to draw upon a wide range of skills and information gained over the last 30 years, particularly from history and politics. Arguably this would be less achievable with other subjects, especially ones based on more synoptic forms of knowledge or skill such as mathematics or the natural sciences, but let no one think that Geography A level is easy. The interpretation and application of geographical skills and knowledge is genuinely challenging: for my main essay I answered a question that asked candidates to consider whether they agree with the statement that globalisation is principally driven by newly industrialising countries. To answer this well clearly requires a considerable degree of information, insight and maturity, and I left the examination hall feeling that I should have structured my answer in a much more organised way. Of course examiners may be looking for mechanistic responses drilled into them by increasingly pressurised teachers, but equally it may well be that to gain a high grade requires more than I was able to offer this year. At the very least it is possible to say that A levels are no pushover, and those school leavers achieving the highest grades deserve credit for their intelligence and diligence.