Are A-Levels fit for purpose?

PwC is ditching A-Levels as an entry criterion for its graduate recruitment programme.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 03 Aug 2015

The fundamental challenge for graduate employers is how do you find out how good someone would be at a job if they haven’t had a job before? There’s clearly limited information to make the decision, which is why many large recruiters have complex, multi-stage assessment processes.   

As one of the few pieces of information actually known, A-Levels are unsurprisingly part of these. They have, nonetheless, been criticised for an apparent bias towards kids from higher social classes, attending private and top state schools.

PwC appears to have listened to that criticism. The accountancy giant ditched A-Levels from its graduate recruitment process yesterday. ‘We want to target bright, talented people and extend our career opportunities to untapped talent in wider pockets of society,’ said Richard Irwin, PwC’s head of student recruitment. ‘Our experience shows that whilst A Level assessment can indicate potential, for far too many students there are other factors that influence results.’

Looking beyond class to see a young person’s true potential is a worthy (and PR-friendly) move for an employer that takes on a whopping 1,500 grads every year, of whom currently a third are from a private school background. But is it a smart move for an employer to ignore even some of the limited information it has?

The question of how a recruitment department should address inequality in education isn’t so much why someone did well or badly before, but whether they will do so in the future. Age comes into it. If a 50-year-old middle-ranking accountant applies to be your group finance director on the basis that they have unrealised potential, it’s unlikely to get them very far.

It’s notable then that PwC is still paying attention to degree classifications and, presumably, where graduates went to university. How grads performed at 21 or 22 is clearly much more relevant than how they performed at 17 or 18 anyway, particularly because the gap in capabilities between those age groups is significant. It does seem pointless to assess how relatively strong someone was at a time when they were absolutely much weaker. Surely how strong they are now is a much better measure.

PwC also said it’s still relying on ‘online behavioural and aptitude assessments that test students more closely on their capacity to learn, personal skills and overall suitability for the workplace’ – presumably all the more so if A-Levels are no longer taken into account.

That perhaps raises the biggest question of all. How closely do academic qualifications align with what employers actually want in their recruits? It takes neither a brain surgeon nor a rocket scientist to figure out that being able to write a 2,000 word essay on Plato or do a titration isn’t very likely to be useful at a place like PwC.

Education is of course about more than just preparing young people for the job market, but it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of the A-Level system, or by proxy the Conservative-led Coalition’s policies of A-Level reform (roughly, let’s all go back to the good old days). Whether other employers such as PwC’s rivals in the Big Four will follow suit remains to be seen.

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