On February 28th, The Purvis Society was delighted to welcome Lord Lucas, hot from a debate in the House of Lords on “Vocational Education”, to lead a discussion regarding changes to A Levels.

Speaking without notes, he got into his stride by spelling out the expectations that we may all harbour when considering a vocational course. He suggested that, whilst academic courses are all well and good, vocational courses, with a markedly different emphasis (on resourcefulness, functional literacy, Purvis.Lord Lucas.NEWScraftsmanship, and on business-like attitudes and approach), have a massive role to play and that there was a lot that the architects of the A Level could take from this.  In each instance he challenged the audience (and I paraphrase here) with questions like, “Does your A Level really stretch you?”; “Are you delivering pre-learned responses to standard questions?”; “Are you able to talk about your specialist A Level subjects with a non-specialist?”; “Is your A Level relevant?” and “Do A Levels really prepare you for a university education?”.  At one point he even suggested that, from a not-so-ancient survey, 85% of graduates were actually frightened of the real world and a “proper” job as they felt under-prepared.

In contrast, he led us through some aspects of the American system with its emphasis on breadth and integration, again portraying the British system in a dim light.  Countering this was a series of statements supporting the in-depth study of various A Level subjects: Mathematics – decision-making, risk assessment, options – vital for modern life; History – the analysis of contrasting views of past events – surely much better now there is so much information available, such a wide skill and so fundamental to the understanding of how people work; English – the art of precise communication, of beautiful speech – surely useful – whilst, at the same time, proposing that A Levels did fall short in many areas.  He deviated to discuss Physics (his own degree subject), stating that girls often made excellent physicists but were put off by the publicity surrounding many of the courses; he cited a simple change to one such advertisement that led to a massive increase in female applicants.

The floor was opened up to discussion and, not surprisingly, questions came quickly; members of the School soon realized they were being asked to question the very educational system they were tied to.  A sense of frustration could be felt from some Cranleighans as they reported pressure to read around the subject, but a conflicting pressure to deliver traditional and “safe” answers with a substantial emphasis on appropriate vocabulary, with no credit for the additional knowledge. The inherent unfairness in a looser style of mark scheme was aired and “Do we place too much emphasis on exams?” and “How important is love for a subject?” were subsequently topics under scrutiny.  Lord Lucas commented on an Economics teacher he knew, through his son, who was openly teaching Economics lessons and also “how to pass the exam lessons…”; some of the staff present nodded in recognition.  There was discussion of the relevance of the Mathematics course and what was described as “historic maths”, surely no longer needed as there are devices to do it for us?  The variety of academic objectives created by the existence of several exam boards came under the spotlight too and whilst it was agreed that this was a good thing (in contrast to the International Baccalaureate) it could cause problems when extrapolated to university level, where degrees were likely to be compared by future employers looking for quality candidates..  A brief sojourn into grade inflation and the problems inherent in year-on-year comparisons almost concluded the evening, although healthy discussion continued over a dinner prepared brilliantly, as usual, by our Executive Chef and his team.

JCEM