University A-level plan challenged

Examination room A-level courses will need to have much more involvement from universities, under the proposals

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Plans to let universities decide the content of A-level courses have been given a mixed reception by teachers and universities.

Education Secretary Michael Gove raised concerns that A-levels were failing to stretch pupils, in a letter to Ofqual, the exam regulator for England.

Ofqual chief Glenys Stacey agreed that more involvement from universities would be "the right thing".

But the ATL teachers' union attacked the plan as a "quick fix gimmick".

The Russell Group of leading universities said they were "certainly willing to give as much time as we can into giving advice to the exam boards".

But Wendy Piatt, the group's director general, cautioned: "We don't actually have much time and resource spare to spend a lot of time in reforming A levels."

The letter from Mr Gove, obtained by BBC Newsnight and sent to Ofqual on Friday, suggests greater control of A-level content should be handed to universities.

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

It repeats a commitment made to head teachers last week that A-levels should be strengthened by the greater involvement of universities.

These proposals, which could be implemented from September 2014, would apply to the English exam system - but exam boards also set A-levels for pupils in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Catch-up classes

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

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

Cambridge Assessment, which runs the OCR exam board, found many lecturers believed students arrived unprepared for degree-level work, with three-in-five lecturers saying that their institutions had to run catch-up classes.

Mr Gove's proposal would continue to allow exam boards to design courses, but they would need to show that universities had been involved.

He has asked Ofqual to oversee the 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."

Mr Gove says the Department for Education should withdraw from developing A-levels.

"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," he wrote.

Lack of confidence

"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."

While his letter suggests current A-levels "have much to commend them", he says they "fall short of commanding the level of confidence".

Michael Gove Michael Gove suggests that the primary purpose of A-levels is for university entrance

"Leading university academics tell me that A-levels do not prepare students well enough for the demands of an undergraduate degree," he wrote.

Mrs Stacey said Ofqual has been in talks with the government about the issue for some time.

"Getting universities more involved is the right thing to do for young people," she told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"Our job is to make sure qualifications pass muster... we can do it better if you involve universities in the design of A-levels."

But NUT general secretary Christine Blower criticised the plans as another "top-down initiative".


"Yet again we see top down initiatives being brought into schools regardless of what the teaching profession may think.

"The NUT is very disappointed that Michael Gove has approached Ofqual without consulting the profession as well."

Start Quote

This sounds like a quick fix gimmick from Michael Gove”

End Quote Dr Mary Bousted ATL teachers' union

Mary Bousted, leader of the ATL teachers' union, accused the government of acting on a "whim" rather than on evidence.

"Of course universities have a useful role to play in deciding what should be tested at A level, but A levels need to test more than just the ability to go to university," said Dr Bousted.

There was also caution from the leader of the private school group, the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference.

"Michael Gove is right to want university input into the much-needed review of A levels, but it would be most unwise to give universities total control," said Peter Hamilton, chairman of the group's academic policy committee.

But leading head teacher Anthony Seldon, in charge of Wellington College, warmly welcomed the proposals - and called for a more demanding approach to essay writing.

"Much academic rigour and zest has been lost in schools over the past 25 years. Even those with A* grades know remarkably little about physics, geography or history, for example," he said.

The Million+ group of universities accused education ministers of "ignoring advice" from higher education and said changes to A-levels were a "much more complex task than simply getting a few academics together".

And the 1994 Group challenged suggestions that it should be the Russell Group universities which were involved - saying influence should not be restricted to an "arbitrarily selected cadre".

Newsnight political editor Allegra Stratton said that Mr Gove believed: "Standards have to go up if Britain's future workforce is going to have the skills it needs to compete in the future.

"This will mean an era of grade deflation, fewer students will get the top marks."

Chart showing the percentage of students acheiving a top grade at A-level since 2001

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  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    Why are we as a nation so utterly terrified of not being A+ in everything we do? Why do we pretend failure cannot happen? There is no shame in *any* grade if they are earned and genuine. I hate to paraphrase Heinlein, but something given has no value. A student who has earned a middle grade has more pride, capability, and chance of surviving an adult world than one handed a top grade for nothing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Good move but it must be married with a proper review of secondary education. My son had to 'wait' for slow learners to 'catch up' all the time and it led him to become bored and dis-interested and finally disruptive. The range of abilities is far too wide in classes of 11-14 year olds imparticular.I think the 11+ should be restored with those not passing doing vocational courses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    A major concern in allowing universities to decide the content of A-level courses will be that it will not gain in value but will lower it to a university entrance exam. Then what becomes of the rest of students? Mr Gove has always been on the wrong path with education making political statements not education statements that will benefit students.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    You can judge that this is seems a reasonable idea to improve education standards by the instant resentment by the teachers' union NUT...

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.


    Public funded education should be about improving the country's economy and competitiveness.

    I work in the hi-tech sector. Pulbic funded education should be about developing individual children's talents, regardless of perceived benefit to the economy.

    Competitiveness can be encouraged alongside cooperation, which is also valuable for business by the way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    All for All @47
    Minus Democracy?

    Will any deny "All born ignorant"?

    In 400ch, "all remain ignorant" (to some degree)?

    At least 'Minus 6' then dispute "only Equal Democracy inclusive"

    How does one 'include' the exclusive, the 1-3% psycho-sociopathic, etc?

    Suggest firm understanding, rather than appeasement

    Until then, the 'news' remains: "Dog Chases Tail"

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    I am a senior lecturer in mathematics at a Welsh university and I can tell you now, A levels are getting easier. The exams sat by students coming into the degree courses I teach are so much easier than when I sat them and that wasn't that long ago, I am 32. I can categorically state now that at least a quarter of my students are simply not academically prepared to study at university level.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    57. Ciaran Donnelly
    You must be kidding me. "unfair natural ability" is exactly what universities and employers want, thus this is exactly what exams should be testing. You seem to assume those with natural ability don't also work hard - they do, and thereby make the best of that ability to learn and achieve. We should celebrate intelligence more - intelligent people bring great discoveries.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    Interesting how virtually all comments that name Gove specifically are rated as the lowest..... Is this one for the political conspiracy theorists or does he just have lots of money to pay people to rate negatively any comment that dares to criticise?

    I am not commenting on the article so if you are rating me down it's because you don't like what I'm saying about Gove.

    Think about it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    There is not a lot the Tories have done or will do, that I agree with, but for a change, I'm in Full agreement with them. I believe exams have got a lot easier to 'up' the Pass Rate, massaging the figures! This, you'll find will not do the students any favours when they get into the real world, they will not know what's going on. SHAME on ALL previous governments!

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    perkinwellbeck (91), I'd certainly support lifting of standards in English. Then perhaps we wouldn't see the kind of mistakes that litter your comment. "hav'ent"? Honestly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    We oldies remember the old days. The A level exam boards. Oxford and Cambridge. The Joint Matriculation Board (a set of Northern Universites). See the clues? The Unis used to be involved. Then it was moved away from them. It became politicised, in standards and all the usual expensive politically correct guff- equality, inclusiveness, fairness, prizes for everyone
    Time for a fresh approach

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Of course the teachers don't want it - it will show up how ineffectual they are. Time was when even 2 A levels really meant something - now everyone gets 3 and 4 or more there is no yardstick to judge the best.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Hard working people with practical skills is what the country lacks. At the moment there is an expectation that a young person needs to go to University to get a decent job. There is now a plethora of fluff degrees, which encourage our young to waste 3 years of their life with no hope of a decent job afterwards. We are not all the same. Universities should be academic. Bring back the polytechnics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    @ 7.AlexBradford1 @ 14.Neil

    You are both aware that the UK is has dropped 20 places in the world education ranks. If teaching methods had improved then how is that possible?
    More people passing exams but a drop in education levels can only mean the exams have got easier....a lot easier.

    We need to stop deluding our children that they all deserve to go to university.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    Good idea but the problem is also at degree level. There are so many degree courses which have no relevance or demand for the working world. Its a waste of student time and money, tax payers money and doesn't help the economy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    86. PreCensored
    54. Razgriz1
    ... an a-level is worthless if anyone can achieve it.

    By the same reasoning, a good reading ability is worthless if everyone can do it. Or knowing the multiplication tables, gaining a driving license, and so on, almost ad infinitum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Me again. It really is simples. Make the specifications easy to understand for the teachers. Write proper up to date reading lists. Give enough run in time - bit worrying that Gove is talking about such an early start. Not practical

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Public funded education should be about improving the country's economy and competitiveness. People need to be trained to be well rounded employees who can benefit the economy, not merely to pass exams. Grants should be full for subjects where we desperately need people & tapered to nothing for the worthless subjects that don't benefit the economy. These reforms don't go far enough.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Worrying that students are describing 1st year university as a joke even though today's A-Levels are dumbed down. I remember finding A-Level maths demanding ('70s) & then stepping up again to engineering maths at university right from Day 1.

    Back in the day, university was geared to the top 5%. Now it accepts the 'top' 50%. We shouldn't be surprised that everything's been made easier accordingly.


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