Superb timing as academy leads way on standards

October 16, 1998

Last week the British Academy held a one-day symposium on standards in education. Good timing. The same day saw the publication of maths scores for 11-year-olds which showed fewer reaching the expected level than a year before. And this week the Quality Assurance Agency publishes its plan for standard setting in higher education.

As is to be expected from the academy, the symposium stripped away much of the garbage which has accreted around the subject of standards. First, definitions: a standard, it was generally agreed, is a fixed measure against which achievement can be judged. It does not go up and down depending how well children do. Second, history: the proportion of the population deemed literate has gone steadily up (with a few blips) for 500 years. The proportion gaining qualifications has gone up dramatically this century. Third, comparability; we can never be sure standards have stayed the same over time nor is it tremendously useful to try since acceptable levels of competence change. Once literacy was measured by ability to sign the marriage register. Now it might be ability to understand a self-assessment tax form.

Good and salutary stuff. A pity then that few of those engaged in the government's programme to raise standards were present. A pity but understandable.

Those determined that something must be done dislike being told it is all very difficult. Angst about whether tests are supposed to measure the performance of teachers or the achievements of children, or whether they are to assess attainment or select recruits is regarded as unhelpful. And the message implicit in last week's meeting, that systems based on national tests and payment by results - tried and abandoned in the last century and now making a comeback - make matters worse not better, is particularly unwelcome.

Into this interesting academic discussion now comes the QAA's plan for higher education. It is much improved since the initial consultation document. The plan has four interdependent parts - a qualifications framework, subject benchmarks, programme specifications and academic reviewers. On the last, academic reviewers, the plan has been changed as a result of vigorous protests so as to safeguard some independence for external examiners. This is a substantial and important modification. On the first, qualifications, this document says little. The framework is yet to be sorted out.

Most interesting are the benchmarks and programme specifications and how they inter-relate. The QAA has evidently recognised (how could it not?) that standards vary across higher education. The benchmark standard for a degree is therefore to be set at pass degree level and expressed in terms of "intellectual attributes", not subject content.

But it is accepted that some institutions will expect their students to achieve above this level and some significantly to exceed it. This is something the institution can define in its programme specification and it is against this specification that performance is to be assessed. Here then, despite phrases about "agreed national standards", lies scope for differentiation and a way out of the worst risk in centralised control: dumbing down to a national minimum standard.

Now begins a two-year development phase. There is a lot to debate. In particular, whether it is wise to set higher education into a mould of 42 subject areas.

The risk of blighting new fields of study and discouraging interdisciplinarity is great. There will be much argument too about the "intellectual attributes" for each subject-based standard. But at least one thing is clear; "standards" is being used by the QAA in this exercise in terms of which the academy would approve.

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