Higher counsel is no solution to exam divorce issues

Experts say grade inflation will persist even with universities involved in A levels. Jack Grove writes

August 16, 2012

Credit: Reuters
Stamp of approval? Russell Group institutions should oversee the reform of A-level courses, the education secretary has proposed

Allowing universities to control A levels will not make the qualification more academically rigorous, education experts have claimed.

As tens of thousands of students receive their results this week, the issue of whether exams are getting easier is likely to be hotly debated in the wake of the sweeping reforms to A levels to combat grade inflation that were announced in June.

Among recommendations made by the exam regulator Ofqual is that each A level must be approved by a panel representing 20 universities, including 12 research-intensive institutions or those deemed "respected in the specific field of study".

Michael Gove, the education secretary, has suggested that the universities approving A levels should be Russell Group members, although Ofqual proposes to allow exam boards to decide who they involve.

However, Tina Isaacs, a former head of regulation at Ofqual for 14- to 19-year-olds' qualifications, said the move would do little to tackle grade inflation.

"I just don't see why someone from outside a Russell Group university would not be concerned about standards," said Dr Isaacs, now a lecturer at the Institute of Education, University of London.

"Anyone who gets involved in A-level design will be recruited on their expertise - it does not matter if they are from a Russell Group university or not.

"It is a mistaken assumption to think that the involvement of these 'distinguished' universities will automatically increase exam standards."

Jo-Anne Baird, Pearson professor of educational assessment and director of the Centre for Educational Assessment at the University of Oxford, agreed.

"Grade inflation is also an issue in higher education, so universities are not necessarily the answer to that problem," Professor Baird said. "There is also no guarantee that the Russell Group could create a better system than we have now."

She did nevertheless agree that there had been a "divorce" between higher education and exam boards that has left A levels vulnerable to criticism.

"A levels need broader support from powerful stakeholders such as universities; otherwise they are vulnerable to attack, which inevitably devalues them," Professor Baird said.

Dr Isaacs also observed that universities might not be willing to ask senior staff to devote time to exam reform ahead of priorities such as research or teaching.

"It is an enormous commitment to do this correctly," she said. "I think it's unlikely that resources will be found to compensate universities for allowing people to work on these changes to the extent necessary."

A policy paper published last year by Cambridge Assessment, which runs the OCR exam board and is owned by the University of Cambridge, said that about £10 million a year would be needed to compensate universities for the loss of staff time.

The status of A-level redesign also needed boosting, otherwise it would "merely be the last issue in the 'in-tray' requiring an academic's attention", according to the paper, A Better Approach to Higher Education/Exam Board Interaction for Post-16 Qualifications.

"Without some kind of financial incentive, engagement will...be tick-box, short lived and would not attract the best staff," it added.

Academics seconded to curriculum redesign should be able to submit their work to the research excellence framework because it had significant social impact, it also said.


Too narrow: changes will hurt state students

Plans to restrict state school pupils to three A levels will harm their chances of going to a highly selective university, a headteacher has warned.

Jonathan Prest, principal of Barton Peveril Sixth Form College in Eastleigh, Hampshire, said that a new funding method, to be introduced in 2016, will narrow the breadth of education in state schools by not allowing pupils to study four or five A levels.

It could also prevent them from doing further maths at A level or pursuing a second or third foreign language, which can be vital for courses at the most selective universities, he added.

The changes follow a review of vocational education by Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King's College London, that found that the current system gave schools incentives to deliver qualifications that boosted funding but required little teaching time.

Mr Prest, who is chair of the Wessex Group of Sixth Form Colleges, said pupils doing four AS or A levels earned higher average grades than those doing three qualifications. "Busy students tend to do better than ones who do not have enough on their plate."

He also argued that current rules allow more funding for services such as interview coaching that help state school pupils to compete with their privately educated counterparts.

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