Government announces plan for Universities to set A level exams

EDUCATION Secretary Michael Gove has called for Universities to set the content and the exam questions for all future A Level exams, amid worries that the current A Levels are leaving students under-prepared for University life.

At the moment, the Department of Education sets out the structure and the core knowledge for the courses and the respective exam boards create the questions on the exams and devise the coursework for the students. Under Gove’s plan, the Russell Group, the 24 most academically competitive universities, will be able to set the content of the A-Levels as well as the questions for exams and coursework, and will advise schools to enter students onto the A-Levels that have been approved by the Russell Group.

The Coalition government would want these changes in place by 2014, so that the students entering onto A-Level courses would be educated in this way, and then take the exams two years later in 2016, leading to the abolishment of modular courses and resits, as the students would only have one chance to sit the exam. Initially, these plans would only affect the nuclear courses of English Maths and Science, but it would be rolled out over every other course soon after.

In his letter to Ofqual, the regulatory commission of education, education’s answer to Ofcom, Michael Grove stated;

“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.”

“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 degrees having gained the right knowledge and skills than that ministers are able to influence content or methods of assessment.”

These plans have been greeted with concern and criticism, most notably from headteachers, examiners and universities. These groups have stated that the current system is not broken, and the fact that the plans are to be implemented within two years is too short a time span for it to be implemented properly.

Pam Tatlow, the chief executive of million+, the group which represents the 26 new universities, said that in a meeting with ministers earlier on in the year, academics had told the ministers that the system was not broken, yet ministers have appeared to have ignored this advice.

Furthermore, Mark Fuller, communications director of the 1994 Group which represents the research intensive universities, called for a more cohesive unit, which has to include employers: “It is absolutely right that leading universities and academics have an influence on A-level qualifications alongside others, including employers.

“This influence must not be restricted to any single group of institutions which, by definition provide higher education only for a minority of 18 year-olds. Universities and employers need A-levels which are robust, fit for purpose and which recognise academic excellence. This excellence is widely distributed across the UK’s higher education sector.”

Headteachers also urged caution over the prospective plans, saying that A Levels were not solely for the purpose of higher education, and they acted as a springboard for apprenticeships and entry into work.

Brian Lightmann,  general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said “I fear that some of Government’s concerns are based on an unrealistic expectation of what an examination can accomplish; academic achievement is not synonymous with employability skills and a good education must provide both.”

He said he doubted whether universities were better placed than exam boards to undertake the highly complex task of setting examinations for many thousands of 18 year-olds, or indeed would wish to do so.