Retake A levels from politicians 1

January 17, 2003

Alison Wolf is right to bemoan the detachment of A levels from universities (Opinion, THES , January 10).

I have been involved with post-16 economics examinations for about 15 years. Originally appointed "university moderator" by a panel of academics, I had a brief to represent the university and advise on syllabuses and an exam process in which several university lecturers were involved.

The organisation has since changed its name twice, and my role is now "chair of examiners". Far from being seen as an outside subject expert, I am now treated as an employee, subject to rules that restrict public comment and discussion. The examining process is mostly in the hands of school/ college teachers. University influence is negligible.

The syllabus is controlled by the quangocracy, as is the requirement to parcel up economics into six bite-sized modules. Introducing new questions or variations in subject matter to reflect developments in the discipline or in the real world is frowned on as teachers demand that the contents of exam papers be ever more predictable. Assessment orthodoxies and the need for transparency mean that questions are broken into parts so that candidates are not asked to write at length or depth on a topic, which does little to help them adjust to university life. Despite less being asked of them, candidates expect teachers to coach them in answering exam questions, and they increasingly carry this attitude into higher education.

Recognising that A/AS levels are used almost exclusively for university entrance should, as Wolf points out, lead us to increase university influence, not diminish it. Rather than seek an administrative solution to post-16 assessment, exam boards should restore significant university input.

J. R. Shackleton
Head, Westminster Business School

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