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 346.

    I found my A-levels more difficult than my degree. That said my A-levels were Maths, English, Biology and Economics.

    The subjects you can get A-levels and Degrees in these days are the issue. Subjects need to be streamlined to relevant useful topics than can be of benefit later in life. Degrees in David Beckham and other dross topics are solely to increase the appearence of grade success

  • rate this

    Comment number 345.

    I see the BBC's running an item "Why do some people not know Timbuktu is real?"

    I could be related.

    However, I think they'd be better explaining all the things that are not real, that so many seem to think are.

    (Such as the belief that any old bit of land, that has superficial highway markings, such as a supermarket car park, is one, and entitles drivers to drive at pedestrians).

  • rate this

    Comment number 344.

    There is, of course, a hidden agenda to Gove's outpourings. That is, to protect the advantage that the wealthy are able to buy for their children through the commercial education sector. Expect to see a multi-tier A-level system where only the most privileged students, with access to private tutors, will be able to sit the top-tier exams for entrance to Russell Group universities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 343.

    He is in the top job for education, and has not even heard of the Cambridge pre-u, which was created to solve all these problems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 342.

    Blockwork / coursework done during the year and which goes towards the final A level should stop. It's designed to make passing easier. In the old days, the exam was a test of ability 'on the day' of the exam. That is a better test of ability. Even if the questions were the same as under the old system, doing everything within a 3 hour exam is a better test of brain agility under pressure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 341.

    The problem should never have gotten this far out of hand. We currently have a generation of university graduates whose Mickey Mouse degrees will, in future, be perceived as having been obtained at a time when standards were at an all-time low.

    Universities should be about excellence in academia, not being able to say "we have X number of graduates, ergo we must be a brilliant seat of learning".

  • rate this

    Comment number 340.

    I teach English A-level and it is significantly more challenging today than it was when I took the exams 15 years ago. It is also true that the quality of my students' writing has got worse. The problem is that students are assessed out of their skulls all the way through secondary school, there is no time to teach the basics. Education takes time. Pressure to prove progress is killing learning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 339.

    What about introducing practical qualifications of equal value to A Levels for non academics?

    I now run a successful business employing 22 staff but have no higher education qualifications. I would have loved to have gone to University or equivalent but was not interested in learning subjects that had no obvious practical use in the real world.

    Relevancy is key for people like me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 338.

    This rather assumes that everyone who wants to do A Levels also wants to go to university, which isn't necessarily true. It also assumes that GCSE are gearing people to go onto A Levels with the "knock-on" effect. We know that there are too many people going to university. I'm all for raising standards but we shouldn't be tailoring exams just towards university. It will marginalise the majority.

  • rate this

    Comment number 337.

    Increasingly raising the financial burden on the student (or the students parents) inserts an inflating economic barrier to education. Economics is not a zero-sum game: one man's loss is another man's gain. It remains the case that business' of all types benefit greatly yet contribute disproportionately in financial terms. That's unfair and should be changed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 336.

    We teach pupils to jump through hoops, in both govt's ever more obsessive pursuit of tests and statistics - no wonder pupils lack independence & common sense! More time is spent assessing than actually teaching.
    Gove was a swot & picked on at school - he now sees his chance to shaft the ed. system that wronged him.

  • rate this

    Comment number 335.

    3 years ago, I trained several groups of “fast track” graduates for a major UK telecoms company. Apart from 2 individuals (Both women) I would have “fast tracked” the rest out of the company.
    I contrast this with the quality of the apprentices I met within the same company.
    I think we may be concentrating on the wrong area.

  • rate this

    Comment number 334.

    Engineering and science degrees provide proper references for comparing capabilities; arts degrees do not.
    Incompetence with engineering leads to structures collapsing, aircraft crashing, people dying etc. Incompetence at history, geography etc. has little consequence.
    Revision of "A" levels is essential.

  • rate this

    Comment number 333.

    In just under a generation, the number of A grades has gone from 8%-25%. No amount of teaching or evolution can can increase grades like this.

    The A level is a universal standard. Those taking it in the 1970s should be on the same field as those in 2012. Clearly, standards need tightening.

  • rate this

    Comment number 332.

    About time! Students obviously need more emphasis on core subjects (English, Maths and Science) and and taught to think for themselves, not learn by rote! Ah well, so much for "Education, Education, Education"!! Thank you Mr.Blair.

  • rate this

    Comment number 331.

    My first thought is that education at whatever level, is to prepare the young for life. So tuning A Levels for universities is only wise if it assumes all young people will move on to a university, But with the high tuition fees there is more likelihood of the young looking for work instead. So I think the A Levels should be tuned for preparing for the work place, as well as for University.

  • rate this

    Comment number 330.

    I think Employers should be involved in writing degrees and A-levels. When I employ someone - I don't care how good their grades are. I want to know if they can apply logic and reasoning to a problem. I also want them to be aware of the standards within the industry - that cannot be taught adequately by a teacher who has never worked in any other sector. Young people do need to be valued too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 329.

    267 @Under-Used - "No one can argue reasonably against the improvement of standards in education."

    So why does my child's school regard "below average" as being satisfactory? Children are graded 1 to 4 or Excellent, Good, Satisfactory and Poor. The lower two quartiles were "below average" when I was at school.

    The everyone must have prizes mentality must go.

  • rate this

    Comment number 328.

    The cause of the problem occurred in the 1970s when O'Levels were replaced by GCSEs - a good GCSE being equivalent to an O'Level pass grade. With insufficient time for students to bridge the gap it was necessary for A'Level standards to be correspondingly lowered. Regardless of who sets the exam papers, the only solution is to improve school education standards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 327.

    The whole education system is rotten to the core. I was horrified recently to discover my 12 yr old niece could not do her times tables, nor simple arithmetic problems - despite her getting A's for class work and home-work! GCSE exams are an absolute waste of 11 yrs schooling and have been dumbed down to suit inadequate teachers and uninterested children de motivated by their parents teachers.


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