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 366.

    Absolutely true. As a mature student I studied 3 A Level courses, studying at home after work, for seven months. I sat the exams and got 3 passes at grade B. Got what I needed but nil personal satisfaction in the achievement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 365.

    I see some merit in this, especially for the intellectually able. But what about the rest? If universities are given this power the curriculum may become very narrow indeed and large numbers of pupils will need alternative consideration. What thought is going into addressing a suitable education for them - and they will be much the majority.

  • rate this

    Comment number 364.

    The whole education system is broken. I remember very little from my GCSEs (I am 24) and the best decision I ever made was leaving my grammar school to do a BTEC in a college. I learn SO MUCH MORE there as it was more vocational than A-levels. Then I did a degree. It helped me get the job I have now, but I learnt very little. People who shouldn't have passed did. It was far too easy to get a BA.

  • rate this

    Comment number 363.

    Educations ultimate goal is to teach children to THINK. It is not to teach them employment skills. These are learnt through work placements and training.

    The subject choice is irrelevant beyond what enables children to think. The 'core' traditional subjects best teach you to think; that's why universities favour them. Vocational subject don't teach you to think; they teach you to do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 362.

    I think this is a good idea. Universities usually teach subjects from scratch anyway and the first year does not count towards you final grade. The main focus needs to be on critical thinking. I think A-Level students should be encouraged to access journal articles rather than text books, so that it is a less scary concept when starting a degree. Maybe students should be taught study skills too!

  • rate this

    Comment number 361.


    I sympathise to some extent. What galls me is the braying arrogance of HE whereby they look down on colleagues in the earlier stages of education and blame them for the problems.

    So, you have pressure for results? We've had it for years, having to spoon feed kids A levels to meet our targets while HE 'academics' sneered about declining standards of undergrads grammar.

  • rate this

    Comment number 360.

    What Michael Gove needs to do is restructure the teachers' salary system so that income is dependent upon children's annual results (independently marked). He needs to send inadequate teachers on a disciplined and exhaustive re-training course - at a reduced salary of course! Then he needs to look at inadequate headmasters who fail to motivate. He needs inter-school competitions to create pride.

  • rate this

    Comment number 359.

    Some sweeping statements from Gove, rubbishing all that's gone before to make way for his brave new world of ... what, exactly? An education system where the pupils are merely groomed to fit the requirements of business?
    There used to be such a thing as knowledge for its own sake and students went to University because it was interesting and made them more rounded people. What does Gove want?

  • rate this

    Comment number 358.

    @Auntie Left 198

    Before criticising others for their "low standards of knowledge" you should put your own house in order. I think you mean "bleat" and "bleating".

  • rate this

    Comment number 357.

    Seems like a sensible move. It will hopefully ensure that students have an easier transition to university and that course content is kept to a rigorous level. Hopefully the A Levels will be standardised and administered by ONE exam board only. The policy of multiple exam boards has been a total failure as competing for pupils encourages a "sales pitch" mentality & drop in standards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 356.

    A Levels are easier because there is a wealth of information at our finger tips via the internet. I can source information about any subject within seconds. Before you had to trapes off to the library, find the relevant book if it was on the shelf and then find the right text.
    Rich parents just bought the books.
    Now I can go straight to that text through Google Books and have th ework done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 355.

    The idea sounds good in practice, but we need to make sure that A levels remain as a vital part of the wider qualifications framework, and don't simply become a university entrance exam.

    I did my A levels 5 years ago, and I don't think I would have passed if I'd had to sit all my exams at the end of the course. Coursework and module exams are more appropriate for some less able students.

  • rate this

    Comment number 354.

    Lets face facts, if the Government invested money in Children which after all are the future of this country we may find a better eduction system.

    After all they can let off movile companies billions in tax, bailout private banks and spend billions on a 2 week sporting event but cant provide a world class free education system. What a sad state of affairs!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 353.

    Just by changing the A level system we are not going to fix the bigger problem of poorly educated youth. The whole society needs to share this responsibility. Parents need to give time to their children not stick them in front of the TV or video game. Employers need to stop putting profit first and train take more apprentices. School needs to identify and develop skills in pupils for future career

  • rate this

    Comment number 352.

    Universities should only be interested in the top 10% of students. Why would they be interested in setting good papers (ones that stupider people can still get some marks while letting the best students flourish) when all they'd really want is to know who's the best? This tosh of 50% of people to go to uni is putting enough stress on the universities as it is without them having to set the papers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 351.

    As long as there are cash incentives for schools, exam boards and universities to have the best pass levels.You are going to get schools and exam boards working together to give a narrow exam field of teaching just so the exams can be passed at the highest level.This is down to government changes to the exam system universities then have to sort out those who need extra help from those who do not

  • rate this

    Comment number 350.

    @revising - 'most teachers admit they couldn't pass' - I think you need to check that fact. Modular work, re-take after re-take to ensure you get the best possible grade...

  • rate this

    Comment number 349.

    This all sounds fine, but many students do A-levels with no intention of going on to university, looking to do apprenticeships or follow different routes into work - what does this change do for them? First they devalued vocational subjects in league tables, which actually provide students with skills many employers are looking for - now this. This govt is doing nothing for less academic students.

  • rate this

    Comment number 348.

    About time too. Back to basics 3 R's, 11+, A levels, O levels in school and later C & G, HNC etc. That's all that's needed..

  • rate this

    Comment number 347.

    About time too! For years successive governments have been responsible for grade inflation which allowed them to claim year on year that standards were rising. Michael Gove is right to stop this nonsense and bring about a return to academic rigour. The socialist philosophy of young people not being allowed to face failure has cost this country dear.


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