A-level changes criticised by scientific community

Scientists have reacted angrily to changes in A-level content announced by Michael Gove.

April 9, 2014

The education secretary published today “revised content” for A levels in English literature, English language, English literature and language, biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, history, economics, business, computer science, art and design and sociology, to be taught from September 2015.

Mr Gove said he had accepted the recommendations from a review led by Mark E. Smith, the Lancaster University vice-chancellor. In a written ministerial statement, Mr Gove says the review drew “advice from subject experts from higher education establishments and subject associations”.

He adds: “By placing responsibility for the content of A levels in the hands of university academics, we hope that these new exams will be more rigorous and will provide students with the skills and knowledge needed for progression to undergraduate study.”

Mr Gove also says: “In the sciences, there will also be a new requirement that students must carry out a minimum of 12 practical activities, ensuring that they develop vital scientific techniques and become comfortable using key apparatus. This will make sure that all A level scientists develop the experimental and practical skills essential for further study.”

But the Campaign for Science and Engineering said that Ofqual, the exams regulator, had opted to “remove the examination of practicals from A-level grades in science”, calling this “a backwards step for science skills in the UK”.

It added: “Although competence in 12 practical activities will be a minimum requirement to gain a ‘pass’ for the practical element, there is no indication that a student will need to pass the practical element to be awarded their A level.”

Imran Khan, chief executive of the British Science Association, said:“Science is a way of looking at and thinking about the world - not a body of facts. You wouldn’t dream of assessing other practical subjects - like languages, music, or design - by a written test alone, and the same should be true of science.”

Mark Downs, chief executive of the Society of Biology, said: “I am dismayed by Ofqual’s response to this critical issue. They have chosen to ignore the whole scientific community. Science is all about application and discovery. Excluding practical exams from the marking system for overall A-level grades is simply nonsensical.”

He added: “To be able to achieve an A or A* grade in a science subject without taking full account of a student’s level of performance in practical work cannot be right.”

Mr Gove also announced an extension in the number of subjects that will be subject to wider reforms, for first teaching from September 2016, where changes will be led by the A-level Content Advisory Board established by the Russell Group.

He had already announced that A levels in maths, languages and geography would be reformed – and today added to the list “GCSEs and A levels in religious studies, design & technology, drama, dance, music and PE”.

“Awarding organisations and subject experts will draft content for these new A levels and GCSEs over the coming months, and we will consult on their recommendations for content – while Ofqual consults on its recommendations for assessment – later in the year,” Mr Gove says.

john.morgan@tsleducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

DfE have also just issued (April 2014) the approved list of Tech Levels (level 3) that can be assembled with GCE A levels to form the TechBacc diploma. In addition approved General Level (3)voational qualifications are available to mix with a GCE A level portfolio for university entry. However top ranked universities seemingly have few matching degree opportinities, which may thus disappoint some students emerging from the UTCs and Technology Academy schools in particular.

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