Michael Gove wants universities to create new A-levels

Examination room If you are due to take your A-levels in 2016, your exams may be a bit harder

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Universities should dictate the content of A-level papers and review them each year, the Education Secretary has said in a letter to exam regulator Ofqual.

Michael Gove says he is concerned current A-levels fail to properly prepare students for university.

Any change would apply to English exam boards, whose papers are also sat by pupils in Wales and Northern Ireland.

But Labour's Barry Sheerman said the real problem with post-16 education was a "narrowness of scope" in subjects.

"There are some problems, but... the fact is we are the only country who ask kids, very, very early on, at 16, to concentrate on just three subjects and then they go on to do a degree in one subject in depth," said the former Commons education committee chairman.

Mr Gove's letter, obtained by BBC Newsnight and sent to Ofqual on Friday, suggests formal control of A-level content would be taken away from exam boards and handed to universities.

Catch-up classes

"It is important that this rolling back allows universities… to drive the system," he writes.

Start Quote

Leading university academics tell me that A-levels do not prepare students well enough for the demands of an undergraduate degree”

End Quote Excerpt from Michael Gove letter

It comes as a study suggested universities wanted A-levels to be more intellectually stretching and with less spoon-feeding from teachers.

Cambridge Assessment, which runs the OCR exam board, found many lecturers believed students arrived unprepared for degree-level work, with three-in-five academics running catch-up classes.

Mr Gove's idea is that exam boards should still set courses but that schools would be advised to enter students for them only if they were approved by a Russell Group university.

He has asked Ofqual to have oversight over this new regime: "I will expect the bar to be a high one: university ownership of the exams must be real and committed, not a tick-box exercise.

"I do not envisage the Department for Education having a role in the development of A-level qualifications. It is more important that universities are satisfied that A-levels enable young people to start their undergraduate degrees having gained the right knowledge and skills, than that ministers are able to influence content or methods of assessment.

"I am particularly keen that universities should be able to determine subject content, and that they should endorse specifications, including details of how the subject should be assessed."

He goes on: "I am increasingly concerned that current A-levels - though they have much to commend them - fall short of commanding the level of confidence we would want to see.

"Leading university academics tell me that A-levels do not prepare students well enough for the demands of an undergraduate degree, and I am troubled by reports from learned bodies such as the Institute of Physics. I know that your own research has identified particular concerns regarding both subject content and assessment at A-level."

Grade deflation

This is a big political and cultural change.

The onus will now be on universities to ensure the students coming through to them are of the standard they would like to teach.

There will be a knock-on further down the education system as primary level has to be toughened to meet the demands of secondary to in turn meet the demands of A-levels and so on.

Michael Gove Michael Gove is keen for British schools and universities to up their game.

This will mean an era of grade deflation, fewer students will get the top marks. Mr Gove's letter also makes clear that if universities want the system of modules to be done away with then, so be it.

In his letter, he says: "The discussions I have had with university academics and school and college leaders on the subject of A-levels have left me concerned about the impact of the current modular structure on students' education, and their ability to make the connections between different topics within a subject that are so crucial for deep understanding."

He says he looks forward to views on this, especially on the efficacy of modules taken in January "together with the impact of resitting on confidence in A-level standards."

In July 2010, in response to Mr Gove's calls to phase out modular exams, Cambridge University admissions manager Geoff Parks agreed that A-levels were "too modular" but warned against scrapping AS-levels.

He said these exams, sat after the first stage of A-level education, were an "invaluable indicator of progress" in helping universities widen participation by giving bright students from less privileged backgrounds the confidence to apply to top universities.

Chart showing the number of pupils gaining a top grade at A-level since 2001

Mr Gove's letter to Ofqual is intensely political because he does not imagine that any future Labour or Liberal government would be able to unpick these changes.

One source told the BBC: "What future government is going to take this involvement away from universities?"

'Rapid progress'

This is from the Gove school of hard knocks. It may be painful, but standards have to go up if Britain's future workforce is going to have the skills it needs to compete in the future.

There is this and other announcements on the curriculum due in the next few months - expect the same principle to be applied to GCSEs, maybe in a more extreme form.

The government is taking action because of leaps and bounds being made elsewhere in the field of scientific inquiry.

Sebastian Thrun, Professor of Artificial Intelligence at Stanford, recently opened his course up to anyone to take, no matter where they lived in the world.

A quarter of a million people took up his offer.

"World-leading publications like Science and Nature are producing their own curricula and online textbook," the source says.

"Many pupils may decide that such courses offer them far more than state-controlled exams of questionable value," he adds.

It will take time for the ramifications to be fully understood. There are those universities who have an excellent department catering for a particular subject but whose overall record is not matchless - they may feel peeved.

And there will be those at exam boards who will feel that universities do not know the first thing about the intricacies of testing students

There is one more thing: the secretary of state wants all of this to "make rapid progress". If you are due to take your A-levels in 2016, your exams may be a bit harder.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 306.

    Ha ! The Universities want to get their house in order first, this is truly a case of the pot calling the kettle black. As an employer I find the majority of graduates completely un-ready for work and needing two years more training before they become useful. My business is ICT and find that the average graduate, even from a top ranking university has been educated in out of date practices.

  • rate this

    Comment number 305.

    Many current A-levels simply test that students have bought and read the chief examiner's book and there's no need for a holistic understanding of the subject. Rigorous independent learning and research skills are thin on the ground, indeed A-Level Maths still requires absolutely no research whatsoever. Reform and rigour are essential, but not just to create entrance exams for the Russell Group.

  • rate this

    Comment number 304.

    @ 250.FauxGeordie

    This may dent your insular pride, but one can only assume you're not in educational institutions, or have no friends in academia or technical professions.

    Many foreign students are in the UK for research, or at first degree level because they failed university entry in their own country. Some can afford a change of scene by going to different countries.

    Get some friends in

  • rate this

    Comment number 303.

    A-levels need some sort of reform to restore their relevance. Year on year pass rates go up, everyone gets A-star-plus etc. yet any blog site will confirm the rise in illiteracy and general lack of basic skills that prevail. Schools become acadamies, technical colleges become universities and the real top-of-ladder universities are devalued.
    Got A-levels, got degrees 'You want fries with that?'

  • rate this

    Comment number 302.

    Another day, another buggering about by the useless spin doctoring government we have all been saddled with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 301.

    there are already too many a level exam boards, that does not give 100% reliability of acceptance by universities. I would suggest if advanced level of education is to be taken seriously, it shoult be manged by only one, with 100% support by all universities in UK & Europe. Hence move to bilaturate qualification, that is recognised internationaly

  • rate this

    Comment number 300.

    @284.efan ekoku, yes I would, as long as you sit the same papers from the 80's then lets compare results.

    Totally agree standards have fallen, why? because the A-levels have got easier, ask your dad how much time he has to dedicate to teaching UK students basic maths (differentiation/Integration etc) in the first semester.

  • rate this

    Comment number 299.

    And just what will happen Mr Gove to the thousands of students who feel they are unable to meet the standards of these new exams and consequently choose to drop out or avoid post 16 education altogether? It just seems that we are further discouraging young people from higher education. But hang on, maybe that's the plan.

  • rate this

    Comment number 298.

    Another way of having a go at education and all those in it.

    Stand in the corner michael.

  • rate this

    Comment number 297.

    In the 70's one supermarket had a trainee management program - 2 ways in - proven work experience or A levels. Bet nowdays it would be a degree needed. Why? That system worked. Lets get away from the belief that everyone needs to go to university. Dependant on the academic needs of the job do GCSE'S or A Level or Degree then go onto career based education PAID for by the COMPANY that will benefit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 296.

    No point in good education at schools if the students then have to find tens of thousands to go to university. Then leaving University to sit at home for years due to lack of a jobs relating to their chosen study.

    My company is looking at making 1000 redundant and sending jobs to india, the country we pay billions in Aid to every year!!! We need to stop outsourcing and invest in our people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 295.

    A better question to be asked would be: Why is it harder to get an apprenticeship at a company like BT, BAE systems, Rolls Royce, etc... than it is to get into Oxford or Cambridge?

  • rate this

    Comment number 294.

    "...Michael Gove wants universities to create new A-levels..."


    By "new" A-levels, I think he just means "A-levels".

    Like we had when I sat mine.

    I'd hope.

  • rate this

    Comment number 293.

    175 Bill Walker.
    "This will free up so much valuable time at university. They will no longer need to do the "foundation" modules so prevalent in many universities"

    But the foundation modules are the first two years of a degree, are you suggesting that a 1 year degree will improve education? Do some research first!

  • rate this

    Comment number 292.

    Being "old fogey"ish, specialising at 16 and studying one subject in depth at university worked well in the olden days! Most employers would welcome the university graduate of 20 or 30 years ago with open arms compared with today's graduates. This is no fault of current students, they work hard & achieve well - it is the system and all started with too much continuous assessment & not enough exam

  • rate this

    Comment number 291.

    Gove needs, as always, to look deeper than his own political dogmas. Many years ago the universities WERE the examining boards. It is their commercialisation that has driven the change to products tailored to customer (ie school) requirements. Also, there is no point in changing exams until you have solved the problems of teaching in schools, and he has only ideologically driven ideas about this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 290.

    I am pleased that the ability to dictate standards only applies to the Russell Group of Universities because quite frankly most of the other Universities are crap and would not help raise standards down the educational chain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 289.

    There is a strange opinion in this country that only those with degrees will make any money - many undergraduate degrees do nothing more than teach you how to remember some facts for an exam and have a few weak arguments in essays. Employers are waking up to the fact that graduates do not necessarily offer the skills that they want - many go to university for a few years of partying and travel!

  • rate this

    Comment number 288.

    Of course Gove could get on with doing something about the fundamental issues associated with lack of discipline within schools rather than duck-shovelling and posturing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 287.

    If Gove thinks A levels are too easy, then surely the first logical step would be to consult with the examination boards rather than indulge in yet more random grandious actions with unpredictable outcomes.

    Consulting universities about possible changes might seems fine, but too many people are encouraged to study pointless degrees anyway & A levels shouldn't just be about entrance to University.


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