Alison Wolf

January 10, 2003

Sixth-form and undergraduate studies have always been symbiotic, so whay are they not more integrated?

For much of 2002, the front pages were dominated by two stories: A-level marking and university fees. The A-level story ran for weeks, destroyed careers, highlighted accusations of declining standards and focused on the blighted hopes of young people setting out for university. The fees story is running still. It is fed by rumours of cabinet feuds and declining standards in cash-strapped universities. And its main focus, too, is on young people whose hopes may be blighted as they set out on degrees.

It astonishes me that the two stories never connect. What is taught in secondary schools barely enters the university debate. Equally, the structure of A and AS levels is decided as though the universities were minority shareholders from beyond the Andes. Inquiries and policy changes emerge from civil service departments, quangos and exam boards whose concerns are entirely with secondary education.

This is absurd. The two stories - the two areas of policy - should be intimately connected. Sixth form and undergraduate studies have always been symbiotic - now more so than ever because the sole significant function of modern A levels is as a university entrance and selection device.

That is not the official view. For the Tomlinson inquiry, set up to defuse last summer's marking furore, using A levels for university entrance "remains a valid and useful application" of the exam, but it also has a much "broader significance", certificating skills acquired and leading to employment. Twenty or 30 years ago, this was a reasonable argument: only a little over half of A-level candidates were university-bound. Today, only a rare bird is not.

It is common to bemoan the way university entrance distorts sixth-forms'

choices and activity. Indeed, such criticism reached apogee mid-century, when single-subject A levels replaced the more baccalaureate-like grouped awards of the School Certificate system. Ellen Wilkinson, education minister in the postwar Labour government, set out to reorient upper-secondary education away from university entrance by abolishing all grading from examinations and removing the university-based exam boards from the Secondary School Examinations Council. The ungraded A level lasted less than two years because universities are a gateway to elite positions. Since only so many students are accepted into each academic programme, the selection criteria must be perceived as fair. However, universities did not regain their influence over the school curriculum but rather continued to lose it.

That influence now rests with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, guardian of A-level exams and content. Its subject committees may contain some informed academics with a broad view of undergraduate teaching programmes, but this will be fortuitous. The specifications that determine what potential undergraduates have studied are, in formal terms, hermetically sealed from the institutions for which those students are bound.

This is unusual by international standards - but even more curious given quite recent history. Our public exams were created by the universities. The precursors of today's three "awarding bodies" were exam boards established by and with the universities, whose defining purpose was the conduct of matriculation exams - that is, exams that attested to a candidate's fitness to start a university course. The exams that the London and Northern Boards ran in the early 1900s were based directly on the matriculation exams of London, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds. For the new universities of Durham, Bristol and Birmingham, the power to organise school examinations councils was part of the early statutes. Moreover, these were broad exams, requiring at least six subjects, rather than today's three or four.

Of course, the exam boards' activities quickly expanded. While the Higher School Certificate was designed as a basis for awarding county (local education authority) scholarships, the School Certificate was taken by hundreds of thousands of people with no thought of university entrance. But the primary link between the universities and the boards remained unbroken until the second world war. As recently as the 1970s, university representatives played a central role in a board such as the University of London's (now part of Edexcel). But no more.

A common argument for the government's ever greater control over education is the need for clarity, transparency and integration. Our upper secondary exams are more concerned with university entrance than they have been for almost a century, yet school and university curricula have never been less integrated. Are substantive link-ups really beyond our powers?

Alison Wolf is professor of education at the Institute of Education, London.

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