Grades of interest

Universities see the value in having more say in A-level design, but questions remain about the organisation and scope of reform, says David Bell

August 16, 2012

Whatever else is true about A levels, they have certainly proved to be durable. They were introduced in the early 1950s to an education system that is, from today’s vantage point, totally unrecognisable. Yet despite various controversies over the years, the qualification is still with us and continues to be pursued by the vast majority of sixth-formers.

One of the debates of the moment is the desire of the education secretary, Michael Gove, to have universities more heavily involved in A-level design and sign-off. This is reflected in a recent consultation exercise led by the qualifications regulator, Ofqual.

In one sense, this is unexceptional but still very welcome. Universities are a key “customer” (or should that be “consumer”?) of A levels. They have a proper and legitimate interest in the academic preparedness of students who come through their doors.

As I know from direct experience of working in Whitehall, senior figures from universities have always been granted significant access to ministers. Some of the more recent changes to A levels – such as the introduction of the A* grade and the extended project – have been strongly influenced by the higher education sector.

But I sense no appetite within universities to launch a “takeover” of A levels. That may not be what Ofqual intends, but what then is intended? The regulator, for understandable reasons, seems reluctant to commit itself to a particular model of higher education involvement. That is probably reasonable because to do so would go beyond the role of the regulator.

Some of what has been suggested is broadly sensible. Academics could act as independent consultants to exam boards – very much in the way the external examining system works to maintain quality in higher education – without constraining the variety of accredited courses. Subject advisory boards probably should have more university academics involved.

Likewise, learned societies and professional bodies need to play a role by advising on the core knowledge required, at different levels, for particular subject areas. In addition, universities are best placed to determine in what areas the transition between A level and undergraduate study is most difficult – mathematics comes to mind.

But one big gap so far relates to organisation and, in turn, cost. Some of Ofqual’s proposals for “sign-off” by particular numbers and types of university look like a bureaucratic nightmare. Who is going to oversee all this (an Ofsted for Ofqual?) and who will pay for it? If the answer to the second question is “the examination boards”, read “schools” because the costs will inevitably be passed on.

There is no doubt that academics have much to contribute – as they do already – in ensuring that teachers are up to date with how knowledge is evolving in different disciplines. However, the core business of devising A-level curricula and modes of teaching and assessment should rest with teachers and exam boards, who are the experts in this field.

Other reforms to A levels that are afoot are equally important to universities. For example Ofqual’s proposals to make it harder for students to retake their exams. The current scheme creates a false sense of reality for students, who progress to university where resit attempts are restricted and resit results are often capped, irrespective of the actual mark obtained.

But whatever is decided for the future, one thing is for certain. Over-hasty implementation leads to botched execution. And you don’t need to pass an A level to learn that lesson.

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