Gove asks for universities to determine A levels

Russell Group universities should determine the content of A-level examinations, the education secretary Michael Gove has told exam regulator Ofqual.

April 3, 2012

In a letter seen by the BBC’s Newsnight, Mr Gove reportedly outlines his concerns that A levels are currently failing to prepare pupils for university.

His letter, sent to Ofqual on Friday, suggests that formal control of A-level content would be taken away from exam boards and handed to universities.

“It is important that this rolling back allows universities…to drive the system,” Mr Gove writes.

The BBC reported that Mr Gove’s plan “is that exam boards should still set courses but that schools would be advised to enter students for them only if [the exams] were approved by a Russell Group university”.

During the political furore over the appointment of Les Ebdon as director of fair access, Mr Gove was widely seen as making a play for universities to be brought back under the control of the Department for Education.

He says in the letter to Ofqual: “I will expect the bar to be a high one: university ownership of the exams must be real and committed, not a tick-box exercise.

“I do not envisage the Department for Education having a role in the development of A-level qualifications.

“It is more important that universities are satisfied that A levels enable young people to start their undergraduate degrees having gained the right knowledge and skills, than that ministers are able to influence content or methods of assessment.

“I am particularly keen that universities should be able to determine subject content, and that they should endorse specifications, including details of how the subject should be assessed.”

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, said during an appearance on Newsnight that there was no “crisis” in A levels.

However, she said there were concerns over aspects such as the modular structure of the examinations.

Barry Sheerman, the Labour MP and former chair of the education select committee, who also appeared on the programme, questioned whether the Russell Group should be handed control of A levels. “Most people don’t go to Russell Group universities,” he said.

The leaked letter comes as a separate survey of academics showed most want a change in the A-level system to better prepare students for university.

Cambridge Assessment, the organisation that runs the University of Cambridge’s exam boards including OCR, spoke to about 600 lecturers nationwide for the study.

It found that academics wanted the exams to include more advanced content for brighter students, cover core subject areas in greater depth and encourage more extensive reading and independent thinking.

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