General Certificate of Education (Absurd Level)

The most difficult examination to pass, GCE (A/L) is as irrational as the rest of our education system. Is it time to rethink?

My current job description makes me more a business consultant than an academic, but I still do teach. Teaching can be refreshing or a nightmare. The second is often true when you teach first year degree/diploma students who have just completed school.

What makes teaching school leavers so difficult? Ask any question. They don’t answer. None of them do. Pointing this out is of no use; they will look down as if expecting to discover the answer written on the floor. You only want them to share what they think of a concept, but they remain silent. You expect them to take notes, but they want readymade ones. You try group activities, with unsatisfactory outcomes.

The more you try to engage the more uncomfortable they feel. There is only one escape route: Conduct the lecture as a monologue, distribute pre-prepared notes, avoid group  activities and ask straightforward questions in the final examination. That is the only way to make them comfortable. You can expect high marks at the end-of-term evaluation. I don’t blame post-secondary school students. One has to remember, they have just completed two back-breaking years of preparing for perhaps the most competitive examination they ever face. They won’t rid themselves of practice habits they’ve gathered. Old habits die hard.

They were trained to run a race. Evaluation criteria: Their memory capacity. The competition expects good individual performance (versus teamwork) and responses only in writing (not viva). It makes them robotic – they can respond to direct questions, but not to ones requiring some reasoning. They know nothing about group dynamics.

They feel uncomfortable when they are not spoon-fed and are asked to think. They don’t get bored with monologues, even if they don’t understand a word. Memorise and reproduce. That was all what Advanced Level has taught them. That coaching is blindly followed. The Sri Lankan education system is irrational. Advanced Level is perhaps the height of its absurdity, and not just for the reasons I described above.

Historically, Advanced Level or its preceding equivalent was supposed to do only one thing: prepare and select the best student intake for universities (and technical colleges). Initially, the preparation was comprehensive. For example, science students were trained to handle basic scientific equipment, which was checked as a prerequisite for university entrance. Even Arts students got the basic exposure to subjects they plan to master at university. Then, the numbers that appeared were limited. Nobody faced it without a clear succession plan. The competition, if any, was low. Basically, all deserving students had little problem in getting through.

Things have since changed. A/L is, following the Grade five scholarship exam, the most competitive examination one faces. It is also the exam with a critical bearing on one’s future. The only evaluation tools are six three-hour-long question papers. In some subject streams, even distinctions in all three subjects does not guarantee a place in a state university. The role it has played in preparing students for university has ceased. Now, hardly any university course is based on the A/L foundation.

University selections are unfair, too. Those selected aren’t the best. At least in science streams, 40% still gain entrance under what is termed ‘district basis’. This practice is unfair and unnecessary. Unlike 20-25 years ago, education facilities have improved across the island. A 5% quota might be reasonable for deserving students from the five least developed districts, but treating the rest the same is irrational. Why treat equals on a different basis?

How we compare students also matters. Currently, only exam scores in three core subjects matter. Is that adequate? Why not greater weightage to English, IT and General Knowledge? These are prerequisites for most university courses. The counterargument is the possible ‘discrimination’ against students from rural areas. But if not, these subjects will never be taken seriously. It’s now time the selection criteria is delinked from three subject z-scores.

Unfortunately, even with all these drawbacks, the A/L examination attracts undeserving importance in society. Should it be taken as the stepping stone for a career? Should the unsuccessful be treated as failures? Should this exam with specific goals be taken seriously for anything other than university/technical college entrance? I think not. We need bypass routes. The unsuccessful should be able to proceed along alternative paths. Why let the incomplete evaluation of A/L govern the future of an individual?

Yes, I see no reason why those with low A/L grades be prevented from a medical career. A basic cut-off is fine (the current standard of three simple passes may be reviewed), but to think one needs excellent A/L results to be a doctor is a myth. Sadly, even other sections of professionals call for such unnecessary prerequisites.

How well does the A/L examination serve students?

In the academic year of 2014/15, only 17% (25,624) of the 149,572 students who were eligible for university education were admitted to state universities due to capacity limitations. That was out of a total of 247,376 students who sat for the A/L exam. The university selectees were the only full and direct beneficiaries of the two years. Nearly 50% or 123,948 students may benefit, if they were to follow an alternative tertiary education path, but this is a long shot. Out of this, only about 50,000 actually enter vocational training courses or non-state universities. Forget that for a moment. What about the 40% or 97,804 students who fail? They have just wasted two years of their life trying to gain knowledge they would never need again.

Are there alternative solutions? Yes, of course, were there two or more exams all categories above could benefit from. While the existing one can better serve the 25,000-odd students seeking state university entrance, other options can be offered for the rest. For example, in India, for a long time, students not seeking university entrance for different reasons (economic or otherwise) can directly enter into vocational training courses without wasting two years. Sri Lanka recently introduced a separate technical subject steam, but we can go further. There is absolutely no need to force everyone to sit a specific examination meant for university entrance. There is more to life than university education.

The bottom line: We have reached a stage where A/L needs to undergo serious rethinking and a paradigm shift. The idea of having an examination (or more) at that level should no more be linked with state university entrance. It should bring more direct benefits to students about to begin adult lives. Unless reforms are initiated, this will continue haunting students.