Owning A levels 'not advisable or feasible'

Universities dismiss Michael Gove's call for them to take charge of examinations, reports Jack Grove

October 25, 2012

Credit: AlamyNot on our watch: critics say minister’s idea stems from ‘listening to anecdotes’ rather than formally consulting policy groups

Universities have rejected plans to take “ownership” of A levels by insisting qualifications should remain the government’s responsibility.

Under the proposals each A level would need to be endorsed by at least 20 universities, of which 12 must be “deemed to be leading research institutions”.

Michael Gove, the education secretary, has called for universities to take “a leading role” in the creation of the new A levels to ensure “ownership of exams” as the government takes a “step back” from the supervision of qualifications.

The changes follow conversations with leading scholars who complained that current qualifications do not adequately prepare students for the demands of undergraduate study, Mr Gove said.

However, in its response to the consultation by exam regulator Ofqual, Universities UK has said “we do not think it would be advisable or operationally feasible for the sector to take on the ‘ownership of the exams’”.

“Ultimate responsibility and accountability for [qualifications] should, in principle, reside with the Department for Education,” it said.

UUK added that “members broadly agree that A levels are fit for purpose”, although “technical reforms” over assessment could improve the qualifications.

Introducing the new A levels into classrooms by September 2014 is also “too ambitious and should be revisited”, it said.

In a letter to Ofqual in March, Mr Gove said the reforms should have a “particular emphasis on our best research-intensive universities such as those represented by the Russell Group”, which comprises 24 large universities.

However, like UUK, the Russell Group’s consultation response said that existing A levels are “broadly fit for purpose”, although it welcomed plans to scrap modular exams.

Other mission groups, including the 1994 Group, Million+, University Alliance and GuildHE agree that A levels are broadly fit for purpose - a finding also made by an Ofqual report published in April.

“The sector has spoken with one voice and said ‘We are not going to take charge of A levels’,” said Jo-Anne Baird, director of the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment.

“It is not from a lack of interest, but they think it is not the business of higher education [to run A levels]”, said Professor Baird.

On the lack of support for the reforms, she added: “This is the problem with listening to anecdotes from individual academics, rather than speaking to policy groups.

“It flags up a real problem (with education policy), which is not done by talking to people who understand the issues.”

Speaking at a conference on the issue on 16 October, Andrew Bell, admissions tutor at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, said that hearsay from individuals has played too great a role in drawing up the reforms.

“It is very easy to find an eminent somebody to support anything you can think up,” Dr Bell said. “[Reform] needs to be done by groups, rather than individuals.”

Dr Bell, deputy chair of the Admissions Forum at the University of Cambridge, added that most Cambridge colleges are against wholesale reform of A levels.

Paul Steer, director of partnerships at the exam board OCR, added that “hundreds of academics” are already involved in A-level design, including “big hitters from universities” who advise on exams.

Mr Steer said that the more systematic sign-off by universities advocated by Mr Gove is not workable in its current form.

“If we go down that road, it will require far more resources and it will take far more time than the government has allowed,” he said.


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