Universities to play larger role in A-levels

By Oliver Hotham

Proposals to give universities more influence over the structure of A-levels are being met with a mixed response by education professionals.

Education secretary Michael Gove wants to let universities "drive the system", forcing ministers and exam boards to "step back" and allowing academics more input.

In a letter to the exam regulator Ofqual, Mr Gove expressed his concerns that A- levels were failing to prepare students for university and that the exams "fall short of commanding the level of confidence we would want to see".

"It is more important that universities are satisfied that A-levels enable young peopleto start their undergraduate degrees having gained the right knowledge and skills," he wrote.

"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."

Glenys Stacey, head of Ofqual, responded to the letter by expressing her support for the plans. In an interview with the BBC, she said that getting universities more involved was the "right thing to do".

The National Union of Teachers criticised Mr Gove for going straight to Ofqual without consulting teachers first, however.

"Yet again we see top down initiatives being brought into schools regardless of what the teaching profession may think," the union said in a statement.

"It is absolutely reasonable to look at the structure of A levels and to look at ways to encourage critical thinking. This however should be the case from the very start of
children's education.

"An obsession with league tables and unnecessary testing is stifling education from the reception class onwards. The education secretary can't just decide to have a hands-off approach in one part of the education system yet want to take total control over the rest."

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said that, while giving universities a stronger role made sense, it was important "ensure this isn't at risk of narrowing access" and that the plans had the full support of education professionals.

He continued: "Universities are one of a number of important groups who should play a role – teachers, employers and professional associations are also important."

"On modules and AS-levels it is important that pupils are given a broad choice of subjects and not forced to specialise too early.

"The most important thing is that exams must have the confidence of parents, teachers, employers and higher education."

The new proposals come after an 18-month study by the University of Cambridge into how universities see recent A-level graduates.

The studies indicated universities think A-levels are too focused on testing and assessment rather than teaching critical thinking skills.

The results also suggested many university lecturers see their first-year students as being unprepared for the level of work required at degree level.

Universities said first-year students were especially weak in areas where they had to behave independently and creatively: writing essays, organising their studying, and the development of individual opinions.

Sixty per cent of lecturers said they were providing additional support classes in writing and independent learning skills.

Andrew Hall, chief executive of the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance exam board, said that reliability had made A-levels too "predictable".

A-levels were introduced in the 1960s as an academically rigorous means to test candidates for university places, but have developed a reputation for being too easy
compared to comparable international examinations.

The plans would make A-level exams significantly more challenging and would come into effect in 2016.