A levels are ‘hollow preparation’ for university

Think-tank says qualification reduces readiness for independent study. Hannah Fearn reports

June 17, 2009

A-level qualifications do not require candidates to think for themselves and fail to prepare students for university study.

That is the conclusion of a report published today by the think-tank Reform, which claims that both established and new universities find students less capable of independent study than they were 15 years ago.

The report blames this decline in student abilities on A levels. To restore the qualification’s intellectual integrity, Reform argues, control of A levels should pass from government quangos to university departments. The report echoes calls from David Willetts, the Conservative Shadow Universities Minister, who wants universities to help design A levels.

Currently, 46 per cent of 16-year-olds study for A levels, and of those students, 76 per cent go on to university. The report, A New Level, draws together research from academics in English, mathematics, chemistry and history. It calls the A level “a hollow preparation” for university and argues that the imposition of six separately examined modules at A level in 2000 has created a “learn-and-forget” culture where academic subjects have been spliced.

As a result, the report continues, academics across subjects and type of university face a generation of “high-maintenance students” who constantly seek advice and reassurance about their work.

The report 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. At the same time, the report adds, examiners are prohibited from exercising judgment in grading.

Elizabeth Truss, deputy director of Reform, said: “Today’s students are being badly 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 paper claims that in the A and AS-level reforms, academic coherence was abandoned in an effort to craft a system in which more students would stay on after age 16. But Reform believes the policy failed. Participation rose by 36 per cent between 1987 and 1997 when a linear syllabus was still in place. In the following decade, when modularisation was popular, participation crept up by only 8 per cent.

According to Reform, the average A-level paper contains “nonsense questions” prescribed by bureaucrats rather than academics.

It was universities that first instituted A levels – the Oxford and Cambridge exam boards were founded in 1857 and 1858 respectively – but the link between universities and the design of secondary and further education was weakened in the 1970s and 1980s as teachers took over the job. The Reform report argues that university heads of department are best placed to restore academic integrity by helping to design the qualification.

Francis O’Gorman, head of English at the University of Leeds, said: “Intellectual integrity is not the privilege of an exclusive elite. It is the foundation of a good education.”

Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group of 20 large research-intensive universities, said: “Our universities have been actively engaged with A level and other 14-19 curriculum reforms, and they make concerted efforts to identify the most effective ways of assessing potential and aptitude.

“We are therefore willing to consider any way we can contribute to improving the means by which students are taught and assessed. However, the costs, particularly the academic time involved in these proposals, are significant and would have to be considered very carefully.”

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com

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