Return examining to academia

September 27, 2002

Universities would do the best job - and they need the cash, argues Carol Taylor Fitz-Gibbon.

What should happen to A levels? In my view, they should probably be returned to universities. I say "probably" because strong opinions should be backed by sound empirical evidence - in social policy just as in science. We have had enough of jumping to solutions.

First, universities will be concerned about what students have learnt because their own teaching must build on that. These content issues are scarcely addressed in current debates but are more important than whether the grade awarded is an A or a B. The upgrading and filtering of content is best overseen by subject specialists in universities. The debates that ensue will result in a rich and diverse set of A levels, offering schools choice and diversity,and will reflect the ever-expanding and changing knowledge base.

Second, by introducing some common benchmark tests, specifically tailored to A levels, the relative difficulty of different examinations could be indicated so that there is a fair basis for selection into universities. About 50 per cent of the variation in grades is predictable from a good test of general aptitude. Such benchmarking is essential in indicating academic ability since the intakes to different subjects vary substantially and a B in one subject may be equivalent to a C in another. At Durham, we have developed such tests and they show that A levels have become easier and also how they differ between subjects.

Third, aptitude tests could be a particularly valuable way of widening participation. A test can be administered each year to a representative sample of students to establish a benchmark for that year's examinations. Some schools or parents could advise students who are quite able but who are not, for some reason, high-achieving to take such an aptitude test.

Fourth, training provided to the working parties on A levels could be used to upgrade the amateur approach universities take towards their own examining processes. Some individuals in every faculty need to be trained in simple but relevant statistics and in the literature on examining, as argued by Lewis Elton, professor of higher education at University College London.

Fifth, we should allow universities to compete against the commercial sector in terms of test development. This could breathe new life into an area that has ossified with commercialisation. In the US, for example, the university system in California stopped using the old Scholastic Aptitude Test when an expert in testing took charge.

Finally, and most important, universities need the money the exams system generates. They are in crisis owing to underfunding in maths, science, engineering and technology and to the loss of schoolteachers in these areas. Starved of funds, some university staff spend huge amounts of time preparing bids for contracts, most of which are not successful.

But the most serious problem is that they feel they have to keep quiet on politically sensitive issues in case they lose the goodwill of contract-givers. This silencing of academics may provide temporary comfort to politicians, but ultimately it is extremely unwise governance. Every system needs checks and balances. At present too much power is political and centralised, and the independence of universities is compromised. Universities need to be securely funded to be able to speak "without fear or favour" and to pursue some research simply because it seems to matter.

So let's return examining, with fees, to some groups of universities. They could work in tandem with the politically appointed (or Capita-appointed) bodies and we could learn from this experiment over the next ten years. The debate over fiddling grade boundaries highlights the need to depoliticise education (incidentally, we pointed out years ago that modular courses yielded higher grades). The main issue is that without securely funded universities, the country has its head in the sand - probably.

Carol Taylor Fitz-Gibbon is director of the Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre at the University of Durham ( www.cem.dur.ac.uk )

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