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 326.

    I'm surprised it has taken this long to be addressed

    Year after year we get the 'highest ever' headline at results time. Never a decline in standards. They have had to invent another grade the A* to show the brightest.

    Its the same with GCSE's.

    If they are being better educated, how come it doesnt feel like it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 325.

    A level playing field?

  • rate this

    Comment number 324.

    A means to filter out those who have been to State Schools and might achieved an A level.
    By filtering out those who might stand a chance to succeed in State Schools there less competition for the higher paid jobs by those who have had a private education.
    Why pay all of that money for a private education when you have to compete for a job with somebody who has been to a State School

  • rate this

    Comment number 323.

    This is going to be the national school-leaving exam system, the courses for which are the context in which young people discover themselves and their minds. The idea that universities should have a monopoly on this process is, frankly, horrifying. Their interests lie in narrowing the field of study of prospective students, creating graduates who can do only one thing. A very scary idea, Mr Gove.

  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    These aren't 'new' this would be a return to the 'old' system prior to 1992. A levels were changed in 2000 as the new GCSEs did not prepare kids properly for the 'old' style A level.

    I got out of teaching A level when the curriculum 2000 came in, teaching A/S was a bore. Who cares really? But it skills for workforce is BS unless you get a job writing essays.

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    Learning is developmental, as Gove's suggestion inconsistently recognises. We should value education at every age for its own sake, not for the sake of one possible route and destination. Children are not mini degree students.Universities too have grade inflation and use the same assessment methods as A Levels do. If this shows they have problems too, why should they dictate school exams?

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    @274 - graduates can't get jobs – nothing to do with being elitist. Take Oxford and Cambridge they are more about networking, money and who you know than being the brightest kid on the block. Just look at are current crop of politicians – can’t call me there brightest bunch!

  • rate this

    Comment number 319.

    Gove wants the Russell group of Universites to set the A levels! Two tier education So want about the other universities? Back to the 50/60's only the selected few go to University.If they only allow the top10% through what happens if more kids get 90% or more at A Level.the are down graded.Universities will only choose kids from private or grammer schools. Stop knocking Schools,Teachers & kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 318.

    I always have a concern that Gove's education policies are based in ideology and soundbites, not clear thinking. If any other sector of the UK had half the amount of interference and change that he has heaped upon education in the same time frame, there would be absolute uproar. Please, JUST LET US TEACH - stop interfering for a while, and stop devaluing the work of my colleagues and I.

  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    And what will be the cost of this venture. There is always money made available for the likes of Gove to waist, all these alterations are designed to keep themselves in a job, whilst we all have to suffer cuts to finance them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    Reconnecting A levels with university entrance is a great idea - it is what they were invented for in the first place. But a free-for-all would not be a good idea - there needs to be co-ordination, not by government but by the subject communities. Organisations like the Institute of Physics and the Royal Society of Chemistry should be taking the lead.

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    For all the gaff's the Conservatives drop, Gove scares me far more with his completely regressive and single minded approach to education. Traditionalist education will simply smother many kids and they'll go nowhere still.

    I'm at Oxford, and feel that I'm here so graduate recruiters can attempt to suck my blood - Gove's making education more a production line than it already is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    I was inspired at 6th Form when the Principal told us that 95% of what we know when we are 18 we learn outside of school and that we should apply what we learn in school at home in order for us to maximise the benefit from our education. That relies on parents as much as teachers. Education should not stop at the school gate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    The first people to sit them should be the members of the houses of Commons and Lords. Let's see how they get on...

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    Is that all a-levels are for? preparing the way to a former college of higher education and adding no value to your future employability?

  • rate this

    Comment number 311.


    *extra time

  • rate this

    Comment number 310.

    Of course the problem is degrees are also not worth what they once were. I see so many graduate job applicants that are not good at thinking and not particularly well educated. (And that applies to the Russell group as much as the rest.)

    Giving control to the universities that churn out this standard does not sound like a positive step.

  • rate this

    Comment number 309.

    Re comment 104, isn't the comment "which most teachers admit they couldn't pass" more a commentary on the teachers' abilities than the toughness of the exams. I was taught in the eighties and I believe only a reasonable number of people still gained top grades then. However, as we were being taught, our teachers nnoted it was the last time they would teach it as it was being dropped next year

  • rate this

    Comment number 308.

    As a university lecturer, I sometimes think I work in a primary school. The level of intellect students possess nowadays is shocking. I am under constant pressure from "the powers that be" to make sure that not too many students fail my courses. "People will start asking questions and you don't want students to complain", I was told. I think it's probably easier to just give them the degrees!

  • rate this

    Comment number 307.

    So Russell Group raised £250k?Primary let kids down by only giving homework once every 3 weeks,Secondary homework is inconsistent. Gifted/Talented kids stretched with 'Beyond Horizons' projects,rest left to get on with it.If lack of homework queried,get told we have loads of kids who are stressed/cant cope as too much hw but don't look into the homework profiles of ones who aren't getting enough!


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