The Conservative Party has said that it will pass responsibility for maintaining A-level standards to universities if it comes to power.
Promising to end “political control” of the qualification, Michael Gove, the Shadow Education Secretary, said he would put universities, exam boards and professional societies in charge of the A-level syllabus and allow them to set exam questions.
“We must ensure that A levels are protected from devaluation at the hands of politicians,” he said in a speech at the Royal Society today.
“The institutions with the greatest interest in maintaining standards at A level are those that receive A-level students – our universities.
“The individuals with the keenest interest in ensuring that A levels require the depth of knowledge necessary to flourish at university are our teaching academics.”
In return for giving universities this responsibility, the Conservatives will expect them to be more honest about which subjects they want prospective students to study.
“We know that some A levels confer a competitive advantage on school students when it comes to university entry,” Mr Gove said. “But many universities are unfairly reticent about which qualifications they prefer.”
Research published last year by the think-tank Policy Exchange, which has close links to the Conservatives, showed, for example, that some universities prefer applicants to law degree programmes who have not studied the subject at A level.
However, they did not make this clear in their publications, the think-tank said.
Mr Gove said that schools “without a tradition of playing the admission system” and the young people they teach lose out because universities maintain a fiction that all A-level subjects are equally valued.
He also pledged to allow state school pupils to study separate courses in physics, chemistry and biology.
The moves are necessary because expertise in science and maths is essential to the UK’s future prosperity and its ability to compete internationally with countries such as China, Mr Gove suggested.
He pointed to a 64-fold increase in the number of peer-reviewed scientific papers produced by Chinese academics since Deng Xiaoping, the former leader of the Communist Party in China, “opened up” the country in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“The days are long gone when Asia was just the home of outsourcing and offshoring,” the shadow secretary said. “China is increasingly developing a lead in the most innovative of industries, including nanotechnology, genetic engineering and quantum computation. This shift of economic and intellectual power to the East raises profound questions for all of us – questions to which maths can help us find the answer.”
Cambridge Assessment, the assessment agency of the University of Cambridge, welcomed Mr Gove’s proposals.
“Cambridge Assessment has for a long time believed that education should not be hindered by unnecessary regulation and political interference,” a spokeswoman said.
“We therefore welcome any proposals to remove this kind of intervention and instead to empower experts in education.”