A levels are failing students, says think-tank

June 18, 2009

Universities should assume control of A levels because the qualification no longer requires candidates to think for themselves and fails to prepare future students for tertiary education.

A report published this week says that both established and new universities find students less capable of independent study than they were 15 years ago, and that university departments should get involved to restore the qualification's intellectual integrity.

The recommendations from the think-tank Reform echo recent calls from David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Universities Minister, for universities to help design A levels. The report, A New Level, calls the qualification "a hollow preparation" for university that has created a "learn-and-forget" culture.

Universities are reporting a generation of "high-maintenance students" who seek constant advice. The paper likens the problem to that of drivers who rely on a satellite-navigation device rather than a map - students no longer have to think about what they are doing, it claims.

Elizabeth Truss, deputy director of Reform, said: "Students are being let down by the A-level system. They are not developing what they really need: a spirit of independent inquiry and confidence that will set them up for university and later life."

The report claims that in the A and AS-level reforms, academic coherence was abandoned to create a modular system in which more students would stay on after age 16. But Reform says the policy has failed because in the past decade, when modularisation became popular, participation rose by only 8 per cent.

The report argues that university heads of department are best placed to restore academic integrity by helping to design the qualification.

However, Gordon Stobart, professor of education at the Institute of Education, said the think-tank's conclusions were "regressive".

"It makes it seem as if no university uses a modular system. Clearly universities have changed," he said.

Examiners had lost flexibility, but only because the grading system had been "tightened", Professor Stobart said, adding that the involvement of academics was not the answer.

"Their vision of where we should go is a retrospective, 'golden-age' vision of single subjects. In fact, we need a broader curriculum," he said.


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