The Department for Education is refusing to say how much it is paying the Russell Group to redesign A levels, despite some estimates putting the cost at £10 million a year.
On the direction of Michael Gove, the education secretary, the group of 24 research-intensive universities set up a company, the A Level Content Advisory Board (Alcab), last year to oversee and approve the content of the qualifications. It followed claims that A levels do not sufficiently prepare students for higher education.
As part of plans for universities to “take ownership” of A levels, Alcab has also set up expert panels in mathematics and further mathematics, and modern and classical languages to lead detailed reforms of curricula and exams in these subjects.
But the Department for Education has refused to release details of what the Russell Group will be paid for these services, raising questions about the transparency of the A‑level change process and about the growing political and financial links between the two bodies.
Times Higher Education asked the Department for Education under the Freedom of Information Act how much it will pay to Alcab for the detailed reforms and for running subject panels of up to 12 people to check every year on the content of A levels in 10 “facilitating subjects”.
The Department for Education said that publishing the data would harm its ability to negotiate future work. “Inappropriate disclosure of budgetary information could prejudice the department’s commercial interests by adversely affecting its bargaining position in the future,” a spokesman said. “It may also result in prices shifting upwards to meet the budget without any necessary increase in…quality,” he added.
Negotiations on how much Alcab will be paid in the long term to oversee and approve A‑level content more generally had not been finalised, so this sum was not available, he said.
However, the exam board Cambridge Assessment estimated that it will cost £10 million a year to do such approval work properly with staff paid for work on curriculum oversight – an approach that will avoid “tickbox, short-lived” engagement, according to a policy paper response to Mr Gove’s plans.
The lack of transparency over Alcab’s finances could undermine its authority as it leads the A‑level reforms, said Jo-Anne Baird, Pearson professor of educational assessment at the University of Oxford. “It’s so important that these things are made public as people have to have confidence in the system,” she argued.
Establishing the amount of resource available to universities involved in the reforms was vital as it would indicate how much time they were able to commit to the process, she said, adding: “We need a bit more transparency about this.”
Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said that the “running costs will be those of a very small organisation and the work of its subject panels”.
Last week, the Department for Education announced that it will pay for up to five pupils from every state school to visit a Russell Group institution “to get a taste of studying at a top university”. It already publishes data on how many pupils each school sends to Russell Group universities.