Making the A level work a little harder

The government wants a return to the past, with more input into the exam process by universities. Rebecca Attwood probes whether the move is welcomed or seen as more ministerial meddling

November 4, 2010

The A level, regarded as a powerful symbol of the nation's educational health, had caught a cold. Under constant attack for falling standards, grade inflation and a "culture of resits", the qualification formed a tempting target for the opposition Conservatives and right-wing think-tanks in the run-up to the May 2010 general election.

Pouncing on the discontent, the opposition proposed a return to the past.

In a headline-grabbing flourish, the Tories announced that they intended to revive "traditional" A levels by placing a greater emphasis on end-of-course exams.

The think-tank Reform claimed dons were unhappy with the A level and called for universities to be put "back in charge", as they were when public examinations were first introduced in the mid-19th century (see box below).

Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary at the time, followed suit. In a speech in March, he promised to "restore confidence" in the exam by ending government interference and giving universities a greater say.

"The institutions with the greatest interest in maintaining standards at A level are those which receive A-level students - our universities," he said.

"The individuals with the keenest interest in ensuring A levels require the depth of knowledge necessary to flourish at university are our teaching academics.

"So we will take control of the A-level syllabus and question-setting process out of the hands of bureaucrats and instead empower universities, exam boards, learned societies and bodies like the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education with the task of ensuring these qualifications are rigorous."

The Conservative manifesto went further, promising to make school exams in general "more robust by giving universities and academics more say over their form and content".

The coalition government has since confirmed that the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) - a quango that came to life only on 1 April when it took over responsibility for A-level design and the national curriculum from its predecessor, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) - will be axed, leaving a clear gap.

So who will fill it? Should universities really play a greater role in designing A levels? And if so, how can they carry out this role effectively?

The answers to these questions depend very much on what the A level is actually for.

Reform's report, A New Level, argues that now more than ever, the primary function of A levels is preparation for university study. In 1985, it points out, less than 50 per cent of students with A-level passes went on to read for a degree. Today, the figure is close to 80 per cent. Reform says it is high time that "the link between universities and their entrance exam" is restored.

Andrew Hall, the head of the exam board AQA, takes a different view, arguing that the qualification has a much broader role.

"Not all students who take A levels go on to university," he notes. "Some go into apprenticeships, some go into other vocational qualifications, some go straight into employment. I think it is important that you have those other voices represented in the design, including employers."

The furore over the number of students left without university places this summer shows why it is important to ensure that the A level is fit for other purposes, he adds.

It is also important to keep in mind that A levels are not the only route to university. In 1999, 68 per cent of UK applicants offered a place in higher education via the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service held A-level qualifications. Today, about half do; the rest have vocational qualifications, Scottish qualifications, overseas qualifications, or have taken an Access to Higher Education course.

The idea that universities should take control of A levels "astonishes" Roger Murphy, professor of education at the University of Nottingham.

"It feels like turning history back. The school curriculum is an incredibly complex area, and a huge amount of thinking and effort - via the QCA, the QCDA, the bodies that preceded them and many others - has gone into working out a national curriculum. We can't just throw all that out the window."

It is widely agreed that the involvement of universities in the design of A levels has weakened over time. According to a Tory-commissioned review of qualifications led by Sir Richard Sykes, former rector of Imperial College London, and published earlier this year, control of the qualification's content and assessment has moved away from awarding bodies to successive government agencies.

The result, says the report, which Gove admits has strongly influenced his thinking, is that "even though universities are the main 'clients' for A levels, academics, heads of department and universities generally have surprisingly little say in the content and form of A-level criteria or the structure of examinations".

Richard Pike, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a member of Sykes' review group, says the role that academics used to play has been handed over to teachers.

"Typically, the awarding bodies set up committees to develop the specifications and exam questions. Those committees - and I am generalising a bit here - tend to be populated by teachers or retired teachers. So you could argue that the whole process is very inward-looking, almost to the point of being incestuous in an educational sense."

But some suggest it has also been convenient for universities to devote less time to the process. According to Simon Lebus, chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, which runs OCR, the only one of the big three exam boards owned by a university: "Universities have become much more research-focused. Academics don't have the time and the freedom to get involved. The net effect is that we're in a situation where there is quite a lot of discontent expressed by academics about the level of skills and knowledge that young people coming to study with them have."

A recent Cambridge Assessment paper on the regulation of qualifications argues that it is not only universities that have found themselves edged out. The British state has "ended up disintermediating subject communities, higher education, professional societies, employers, teachers and those developing and providing examinations by taking upon itself the role of defining the content of syllabuses and the way in which they were examined", it says.

"The best international qualifications - the International Baccalaureate, the Cambridge Pre-U, and the International General Certificate of Secondary Education - are such because they have a minimum of state intervention," the paper claims.

Still, universities are not shut out of A-level design completely. The preliminary stage of A-level design is the development of qualification and subject criteria - in other words, ground rules for the course. Before its demise, the QCA worked to develop criteria with awarding bodies, and received input from higher education, subject associations and schools.

"It is a misconception to say that higher education was not involved - higher education was involved from the outset," says Tina Isaacs, an academic at the Institute of Education who used to work at the QCA. "But the rest of the world might not know that there were three or four people from higher education in a room that had fewer than 20 people in it.

"We wouldn't even have thought about revising the criteria without having higher education representatives on the panel."

The criteria are short, about five pages long, the argument being that this allows the awarding bodies flexibility in designing more specific syllabuses, sample papers and marking schemes. These documents can run to several hundred pages.

However, the view from exam boards is that the criteria and the process as a whole is far too restrictive, placing strict limits on what they can and cannot do with the syllabus.

What of ministerial meddling?

The phenomenon is something Isaacs has experienced during the development of criteria at the QCA.

"Things would get tweaked between the committee and the consultation stage," she explains. "We used to give the department draft criteria and ask them to comment, and it was extremely rare for us not to take on board the comments that they made.

"Technically we did not have to do that. The secretary of state signs off the national curriculum, but that only goes up to 16. However, there was always an expectation that department ministers would be able to give suggestions. They were never terribly outrageous. It was usually a matter of rephrasing a criterion or two," Isaacs says.

Exam boards say they do work with universities on their specifications, but they agree that they could do more.

"We, as awarding bodies, are very ready to respond to clear signals from higher education about what it is that they want and expect young people to know, and the skills they expect young people to have," says Cambridge Assessment's Lebus. "But there is a lack of mechanism in place to allow higher education to express that view."

Occasionally, there is real collaboration. Edexcel, for example, has developed physics and biology A levels in partnership with the University of York - a fact that is clearly stated at the start of the course specification. Cambridge Assessment worked with York, too, on its 21st-century science GCSEs, and its Pre-U - a qualification launched as an alternative to the A level - was designed with significant input from academics and subject associations.

Rod Bristow, the president of the publishing giant Pearson UK, which owns the exam board Edexcel, says: "I think the exam boards in this country for the past several years have been utterly micromanaged by the QCA. Consequently, the awarding bodies haven't had the room or the reason to seriously engage with higher education in the way they probably should."

He admits that the science A levels developed in partnership with York are unusual, but he anticipates more collaborations in future. Edexcel will follow the Sykes review recommendation that awarding bodies publish details of all those they have worked with on their syllabuses and exams.

"We will increasingly develop qualifications with a number of universities. We will be open about it and list the universities we work with for each specification we develop."

But do universities want to get more involved? Universities have an automatic incentive to engage because the decisions ultimately affect how well prepared their students are for higher education study. But they are currently being battered by huge budget cuts.

Cambridge Assessment argues that universities must be given good incentives to participate in the development of qualifications.

It says the Quality Assurance Agency could recommend that universities engage with awarding bodies. The Higher Education Funding Council for England could inherit some of the money saved from the abolition of the QCDA for funding engagement. Academics could be seconded to awarding bodies.

Other suggestions are that engagement in the process could count as "impact" in the forthcoming research excellence framework and that the Higher Education Academy could facilitate engagement.

"We recognise that there probably ought to be incentives because academics have very heavy research agendas," says Lebus. "There probably needs to be funding to release academics from some of their normal duties - to do this properly and in a meaningful way will require a reasonable amount of an academic's time.

"The government says it wants higher education to get more involved in the exam system, but it is not reasonable to expect that to happen on the back of an expression of hope - there has actually got to be some support for it happening."

Some claim that involving academics is difficult because there is not always agreement among them on what the exams should include.

AQA's Andrew Hall, who formerly ran the QCA, says: "If we pick A-level mathematics, getting a common view from within a university of what they would want to see A-level maths containing is really quite a challenge. The mathematics department will have one view, the engineering department will have another view, the chemists another and the biologists another. Finding that line of 'best fit' is one of the challenges we try to overcome.

"Universities are involved (in the process of A-level design). Could they be involved more? Absolutely, yes they could. But if that is going to happen, we have to find a way to get that common view."

Steve Brace, head of education at the Royal Geographical Society, says the society has been involved in a number of curriculum reviews but was conscious of being "one voice among many, in a setting where the QCDA was definitely in control".

"It makes sense for the involvement of academics to be through the learned societies, thus ensuring a broad and balanced approach to a discipline and the involvement of academics who have a sympathy towards school-based education. It is common for the society to coordinate the views of the academic community in wider matters," he says.

However, even engaging learned societies can be complex, says Tina Isaacs, who points out that, while every effort was made to involve them, at one stage there were some 57 music-related subject groups. The temptation is always to add more content in order to please everyone.

"It is not a matter of too much or not enough involvement from higher education. It is about balancing that with the involvement of representatives from schools, colleges and employers," she adds.

The Sykes review argues that, in return for a greater say over A levels, universities must be more "honest" about the qualifications they prefer. In future, it adds, awarding bodies should have more freedom to develop new qualifications in consultation with universities and employers.

However, there are concerns that the already-powerful exam boards could gain even more power under a new system.

England has three big exam boards. They claim that competition drives innovation and improvements in service and support that would be lost under a single exam board.

But others worry that the current arrangement has significant downsides.

In a recent book, Reinventing Schools, Reforming Teaching: From Political Visions to Classroom Reality, Mick Waters, the former director of curriculum at the QCA, describes the exams system as "diseased, almost corrupt".

"We've got a set of awarding bodies who are in a marketplace," he says. "In previous jobs, I had seen people from awarding bodies talk to head teachers implying that their examinations are easier. Not only that, (they would say) 'we provide the textbook to help you through it'.

One recent newspaper "exposé" highlighted paid-for courses run by some exam board chief examiners, offering examination tips to students and teachers. It also called attention to the bold claims made in marketing materials. Edexcel, for example, calls its GCSE maths exam "your proven formula for success" and says its clear exam papers and service "will all add up to better results for you and your students" in the promotional materials on its website.

Exam boards have robustly defended their standards, while Cambridge Assessment calls Waters' comments "inflammatory and polemical" and says they fail "to engage with the reality of the system which the interventions of the QCA - of which he was a director - created".

Amid these concerns, Michael Gove, now the schools secretary, has promised to strengthen the regulator, Ofqual. However, there are mixed messages from the government - in opposition, the Conservatives reportedly considered reducing the role of Ofqual by removing it altogether from the A-level accreditation process, and there are fears that the organisation lacks expertise following a series of staff departures.

The Sykes review says that awarding bodies should not be required to have post-16 qualifications accredited, but even Cambridge Assessment thinks this would be a step too far.

"If non-accredited organisations are allowed to offer anything, students seeking university places could be at the mercy of a disorderly market with recourse only available after gaining worthless qualifications and failing to enter higher education," it has warned.

The need for greater transparency is a clear theme. To the outsider, the involvement of so many organisations in the process means that the lines of accountability are unclear.

Graham Hutchings, chair of the Science Community Representing Education (Score), a partnership of learned societies aiming to provide a coherent voice on issues in science education, says: "There has been no real ownership of a given qualification, with no one organisation responsible for ensuring that the qualifications are fit for purpose...Professional and learned societies and national academies could, and arguably should, play a greater, leading role in the qualification process and utilise the experiences of their wide-ranging memberships. In order for this to be effective, the question of ownership must be addressed."

Cambridge Assessment believes the solution is to give the "users" of qualifications a major role in developing curriculum content. However, when it comes to design criteria - such as the number of modules that make up an A level - it says it should be down to exam boards to reach a final agreement. Meanwhile, a "community of practice" for each qualification would "own the standard and protect it on a day-to-day basis against the vagaries of pedagogical or political fashion".

This would result in awarding bodies having "greater ownership" of qualification design, making exam boards more accountable to users and the public - rather than the exam body "acting as a conduit between the state's requirements and the end user".

Pike envisages the possibility of learned societies working with the regulator to give a "stamp of approval" to courses.

He also argues that the process needs to become less complex. The system is so time-consuming that academics and senior figures from industry cannot take part, he claims.

"You have so many committees. Once you have that sort of structure it is very difficult to get these people into those committees: they don't have the time."

But Murphy remains sceptical that universities have that much more to add.

"When they get their sleeves rolled up and start having the detailed discussion, they will probably find that universities have less to contribute than most of the other groups because they don't know much about teaching in schools and they are mostly focused on high-achieving students.

"Have them there, but actually they probably won't be that keen on spending masses of time attending meetings about school examinations and they may not have as much to contribute as Gove thinks."

Finally, could greater involvement for universities be a double-edged sword? If universities have a bigger say in A levels, surely they will not so easily be able to criticise the qualifications.

Do not count on it, says Murphy.

"I assure you certain academics will go on complaining whatever changes are made."


Public exams were introduced in the UK in the middle of the 19th century.

Their original aim, according to Cambridge Assessment, was to improve standards in schools and to provide a stream of potential undergraduates.

The University of London's entrance exam was used by some students as a school-leaving exam from the early 1800s, but the first university-run exam board was not established until some decades later.

In the spring of 1857, a group of schools in Cheltenham, Leeds and Liverpool wrote to the University of Cambridge asking the institution to set up a system of "local examinations" around the country.

But Oxford beat Cambridge to it. The University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations was established in June 1857 and the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (Ucles) came into being in February 1858.

Frederick Temple, a school inspector, said at the time: "The universities should be made to feel that they have an interest in the education of all England."

Soon after, the University of London and the Victoria University of Manchester set up exam boards.

Examining the World: A History of the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (2008) explains how Ucles worked in its early days.

Examiners were "university men". They set and marked the papers and travelled around the country to oversee the exams.

Cambridge's examiners "were paid by the difficulty of the subject and the weight of the scripts they marked", the book explains. In the 1860s, for each pound in weight, markers of arithmetic earned 9 shillings and 6 pence; markers of history, 12 shillings; and of Classics, 18 shillings. Later on, examiners also acted as school inspectors.

Even in those days, there were complaints about students being "spoon-fed". An examiners' report from the time says: "The examiners regret to notice the prevalence of the bad habit of making the children learn by rote concise notes from textbooks, without making sure that they understand what is meant."

There were other fears. In January 1895, the Journal of Education complained that "a competitive examination for boys and girls of 13 or under is absolutely indefensible on physiological grounds...(it also) encourages masters and mistresses to teach not the subjects that are the best gymnastic for their pupils but those which will obtain, at least cost, the greatest number of distinctions for their schools".

In the early 1900s, the Higher School Certificate - which foreshadowed the A level - was introduced. Together with the School Certificate, these qualifications represented the first unified secondary-school exam system.

The General Certificate of Education A-level system was launched in the 1950s, and in 1985, the White Paper Better Schools laid the foundations for the national curriculum and a reformed exam system that was more closely tied to the standardised school curriculum.

Sir Ron Dearing's 1995 report on qualifications for 16- to 19-year-olds recommended a rationalisation of the number of bodies involved in the award of qualifications.

This resulted in many of them merging to become the three big awarding bodies we have in England today.

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most commented