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 386.

    352. yoinkster
    Universities should only be interested in the top 10% of students... This tosh of 50% of people to go to uni ...
    Tosh? Tell that to the Finns, who have a considerably higher percentage going to university (free at that), and whose results show higher educational standards than those we are told England has.

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    I think Gove's statement
    "I do not envisage the Department for Education having a role in the development of A-level qualifications."
    is possibly the most astoundingly inept thing I've ever read. If the Department for Education has no role in developing our highest school examination then what on earth is its purpose?
    Spend less time changing "of" into "for" and more time on the real job!

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    371 - It worked alright - for the top 10%. Who want it back.

    I went to a very good grammar school and a world top 4 university 30years ago - the education I got was weaker and narrower than my children currently get. If UK universities a worldwide joke it CANNOT be simultaneously true - as it is - that foreign students clamour to get in.

    It is a load of ill-informed nonsense to suggest otherwise

  • rate this

    Comment number 383.

    The sentiment appears OK but not sure the Universities are the right body to set papers. It would be better if there were a single, independent, national exam board that set exams (for GCSE and A-level) rather than the current exam boards (AQA, OCR etc). There is a standard, National Curriculum so there should be a single exam board. Both the NC and exam system needs reforming badly!

  • rate this

    Comment number 382.

    Do you honestly think students want to wind up with tens of thousands of pounds in debt just to make themselves a more "rounded person"? They do it to get a qualification that will aid them in their future career. Admittedly, if it is a degree in media studies it may be a career flipping burgers, but the majority need an education tailored towards work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 381.

    This latest suggestion could result in universities dictating A-level curriculum is this what we want? What about some consultation with the professionals - both in schools and university.

  • rate this

    Comment number 380.

    Another standard for lefties and die-hard anti-conservatives to feel smug about: In the past solicitors finals were 4 papers in 2 consecutive days. Today it's open book.

    My chartered accountant friends tells me it's also open book now for the revered P1 and P2. Some questions in old O-level books are harder than A-levels today.

    The lefties are still UK's enemy within.

  • rate this

    Comment number 379.

    53 Paul
    The problem with putting people in charge of education when they have no experience of teaching is that their first thought is TESTING - with the result that teachers then start educating solely for exams. There have been many recent examples of this, as schools try to climb the results ladder.

  • rate this

    Comment number 378.

    Universities are already involved in the A Level Syllabus. This is another move to attack the current educational system to prepare for major changes to benefit people like Gove and Cameron - not for the benefit of the majority of the population.

  • rate this

    Comment number 377.

    Schools were once for education. Then Thatcher et al.

    (1) Introduced National Curriculum, a politically motivated one-size-fits-all;

    (2) Replaced O levels with GCSEs;

    (3) Sold exam boards to publishers, so exams are aced by buying the publisher's book;

    (4) Destroyed vocational learning, renaming everything "university";

    (5) Reduced schools' "stern welfare" role.

    Now they're for shaping cogs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 376.

    The current system just can not stand, I'm personally in year 13 at the moment. Being honest A levels are far too easy not that I'm doing easy subjects (Maths, Physics, Economics A level and Further Maths, General Studies AS as well as the much raved about English Baccalaureate).

    Also at AS people have the attitude oh who cares I can just re-sit, this is not healthy either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 375.

    .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. //

    Uni should be for those best suited to it. And we should be focussing on training people to be good plumbers if that's what they want, not assuming they'd like to be lawyers if they could be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 374.

    It beggars belief that Universities don't already vet A levels as the principal customers of the courses. You can already see how stupid this is as most first year undergraduate courses are remedial revision at the moment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 373.

    As an ex educator, I will say with some certainty, there are some kids going into "further" eductaion at colleges who are just there out of the road of the buses, vertually un-employable and a waste of time in colleges also. Uninterested and disruptive, they stop other kids, who really want to learn, calling them swots and worse. Bums on seats comes to mind, paid by numbers not quality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 372.

    Hello theflamingobrigade. I am amazed that you took English at university, but seem unaware of correct punctuation (Are you familiar with the comma?), capitalization ('a-level' !), and case viz. nominative and accusative (It should be 'as qualified as I', not 'as qualified as me').
    And chinkinthearmour, try speaking to German students (on a German campus) about comparative academic standards...

  • rate this

    Comment number 371.

    Instead of dreaming up yet another system which satisfies the fairyland needs of the PC brigade why not just go back to the old system which we had up to early 80's.
    When I took my O and A levels the exams were competative. That means that the pass/grade marks were not fixed and only the top 60% of entrants got to pass and the top 10% got the top grades. The system worked ! Why was it changed!

  • rate this

    Comment number 370.

    Politicians love changing things for the sake of change. First they mess up universities' funding, then want them to take control of setting A-levels. Universities' main activities should be research and teaching undergraduates. Universities make a major contribution to the economy through knowledge transfer, spin-off companies, etc. but need the funding to compete with America and Asia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 369.

    I was very surprised when in my first year of uni we had to take a module in 'Study Skills', when we 'learnt' to use a library, take notes, write an essay, reference quotes etc. It was such a waste of time for me but I realised many undergrads didn't have these skills.
    I had been taught all these skills before GCSEs and developed them over the course of GCSEs and ALevels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 368.

    I am sure my A Level Psychology students will feel stretched by the under-grad multiple choice exams that my son has (at the end of every ten week module) in his Russell Group university psychology exams. I don't know why we didn't think of this earlier; beats essays every time. Certainly easier to mark!

  • rate this

    Comment number 367.

    Hi Andy. Enjoyed your ill-informed rant. You really think teachers set out to de-motivate pupils? How is that in their interests, with Ofsted & Govt breathing down their necks? How have teachers 'dumbed down' A-levels, when the tests are set externally and not even seen until the test day? Education is strangled by the Gove & those before him, not by teachers, trying to make the system work.


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