I have written about school qualifications once before here in 2014, when I was criticising the move to adding an A* grade at GCSE and the consequent narrowing of the grade boundaries to mimic the A-level ones. We have of course since moved to a numerical grade system for GCSEs which is even narrower. However, if the exam grade system was a bad way to assess students, the algorithm which replaced it in the summer (explained here and critiqued here) was clearly worse still.

So, against a background of steadily less reliable grade information at both GCSE and A-level, it was interesting to look at the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries’ (IFoA’s) employer directory and note that, of the 25 separate adverts for graduate roles, 11 of them have an A-level or UCAS points requirement in addition to the university degree requirement. My question is why?

I understand that employers, particularly this year, are likely to have very large numbers of applicants and need some way of reducing the number they need to review in detail, but there are many much better sieves than A-levels these days. Psychometric tests can assess how rusty students’ numeracy is. Application forms can be digital and given a computerised first pass on any number of criteria and, if the questions are constructed thoughtfully, will give companies a smaller set of applicants much more closely aligned to their goals than the grade given at mathematics A-level.

Even if you accept the grades as representative, there are clearly issues around social mobility and widening participation from relying on them to exclude a large number of candidates initially, which was highlighted when an algorithm attempted to reproduce the results based on subject studied and school attended. The news today that they will not be trying this again this summer is encouraging, but even if mark allocations are fairer, many problems with A-levels remain.

I have felt that this has been a growing issue for some time – it has always seemed to me ridiculous that a student on my programme (the BSc Mathematics and Actuarial Science at the University of Leicester – a qualification accredited by the IFoA), doing well and on track for all 6 of the core principles exemptions available as a result, still feels the need to retake an A level taken before they had discovered the motivation for actuarial work that they now have, in order to have a chance with many of the top employers. Are those employers so lacking in confidence in the integrity of their own profession’s qualification system that they need the security backstop of an A-level pass?

It is likely to be a tough environment for young people attempting to start their careers this year, whatever their skill set. I hope employers will review their current approach to recruitment and check they are not inadvertently pulling up the ladder before seeing all of the talent available.

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