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 403.

    334. Ariana - "A-Level qualifications should therefore not be seen as University entrance exams"
    Of course they should! Education, as opposed to job training, goes - KS1-2-3 - GCSE - A level - University. At whatever stage you exit, you have an indication of your education level, thus your potential, and you now go on to job training. Education must not be just vocational.

  • rate this

    Comment number 402.

    The grades and their inflation needs to be fixed agreed but what about allowing pupils to fail too.
    When I went to school/college there were no resits so you left school with a fail if you didnt make the grade and at college you would have to repeat the year, a good incentive?
    Also I remember the grade levels and minimum pass mark was calculated so that only a certain % passed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 401.

    I never felt that the exams I took at A levels were easy. In fact I have done better in exams at university. Why? Because it is possible to do well at an A level standard simply by learning what you have to know and writing it down in the exam (even more so at GCSE), whereas university exams give you problems that cannot be tackled in this way. Harder to prepare for but really tests ability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 400.

    On what planet do university academics have time to sort out A-levels as well as their own work?? Most lecturers barely have time to do their own teaching and marking and research and student support and departmental admin and everything else they have to do with all the job cuts. If Gove plans to create more university jobs so this can be done without teaching or research suffering, then great!

  • rate this

    Comment number 399.

    Every time I see people go on about how A Levels are easy, I physically cringe. Yes, there are a couple of A Levels that are easy in relativity to others, but there's no single course that's a "walk in the park". Regardless, we should be looking more at the transition between GCSE and A Level, as that is the biggest problem right now.

  • rate this

    Comment number 398.

    I left teaching (Science up to A level) as it frustrated me when I had to teach such easy concepts for an easy exam. I am back in academia and can see the product of the school system - poor basic knowledge.

  • rate this

    Comment number 397.

    Why A'levels? I have two 6th form children currently doing the IB. It is a broad based qualification which requires both academic, social and theoretical thought yet still with the ability to focus towards specific subject areas. The marking is also better as it is points based not grade based so the universities can easier distinguish between candidates. Maybe the time has come for real change?

  • rate this

    Comment number 396.

    I have no doubt that A'Levels are getting easier and rectifying this is very important. It's also important to remember that, before all of the ill-thought changes in the 1980s and 1990s, the O'Level and A'Level examination boards were run by the Universities.
    I guess that pupils aren't meant to be competitive or challenged now? The system appears to be happy with mediocre getting top marks?

  • rate this

    Comment number 395.

    The UK and US could do far worse than follow the example of the educationally dominant South Korea, China etc and indeed must in a world where economic power is rapidly shifting eastwards. A good start would involve less focus in schools on 'trendy' issues such as obesity and climate change, and more actual teaching of hard maths and sciences, plus longer school days and fewer holidays.

  • rate this

    Comment number 394.

    Education is an entitlement, we should have the right to better ourselves regardless. That doesn't mean you are entitled to University if you don't get the grades. Students should have a say over their own studies too and it should not just be exam orientated. Exams are not an education. Know plenty of people who did well in exams but were not that bright.

  • rate this

    Comment number 393.

    I am currently a Mathematics student at university, and the Maths A-levels were not inherently easy, but were easy to do well in by learning the structure and expected response from the previous years exams. This is what needs to be looked at. The content of A-levels is difficult but someone who gets a B grade doesn't necessarily have a full understanding of the course but has just learnt to pass.

  • rate this

    Comment number 392.

    The government keep complaining about the shortage of scientists and engineers - perhaps this is less to do with our schools and more to do with the relatively poor pay and conditions for such jobs compared with those for a range of less productive careers that are on offer to the same people. Leaving university with a large debt will not encourage more to choose the less well paid option.

  • rate this

    Comment number 391.

    To all those moaning about picking on teachers and students: this is not an excuse for continuing an education system that is not fit ..
    What they need to do is abolish league tables (the major cause of driving the system in the wrong direction) and invest in high standard teacher training with the best intake.
    Then leave it to the highly qualified professionals to educate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 390.

    This should not go ahead, the purpose of A-levels is to offer higher education from GCSE and not just to prepare students for uni. If this were to go ahead the students who's intentions are not university would be left behind, or possibly forgotten about completley. Although A-levels do need a overhaul giving power to universities is not the answer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 389.

    If this goes ahead it is going make "getting into a university" the sole reason for getting an education- and this is wrong.
    University is not the right step for all students. Instead of proposing such motions the government should be concentrating on providing school leavers with other opportunites such as internships and apprenterships. To much emphasis is put on degrees which offer no value.

  • rate this

    Comment number 388.

    NavaronUK - "The only statistic you need is: In the 1970s only the top 5% of students entered university, now its closer to 50%"

    In the 1970s the following did not need degrees: nursing, accountancy, teaching but A levels were needed by students of these courses at nursing, accountancy and teacher training colleges. Now these and many professions require degrees. Hence the big growth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 387.

    366.Kristal Tips, I did a BTec HND (computer Studies) after A-levels at the start of the 90's so I've seen both sides, I knew I couldnt do a degree, after doing A-levels, but a BTec as good as a degree though its vocationally focused rather than acedemically focused. Both have a place,

  • rate this

    Comment number 386.

    I'm due to graduate this summer with an Engineering degree. In spite of the current state of the economy, I have two job offers, another interview tomorrow, and a conditional offer of a fully funded PhD position.

    Why have I got so many choices? The majority of my course are Chinese, and aren't eligible for the positions. British students just aren't interested in demanding subjects.

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    The standards of Education have been driven into the corner where the get out clauses of nowhere else to go have now been acknowledged.
    and the bottom of the pit has been arrived at, at last. If this is a new beginning for our future then it can only be good for the country. Teachers wont like it as it impinges on My Godfrey Daniels Ill have to do some real work now

  • rate this

    Comment number 384.

    Are A levels intended to see whether or not students reach certain levels? Or are they intended to divide the students, in any particular year, into grades according to their respective abilities?
    Are they absolute standards or relative standards?


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