University ownership of A levels in doubt

Russell Group’s review body on ice after education secretary hits pause button

February 5, 2015

Source: Getty

We’ll get back to you: the sector’s A Level Content Advisory Board may not be asked for further exams input until 2017

The role of universities in maintaining the standard of new A levels has been placed in doubt after academics were not invited to take part in future checks on examinations.

Under plans announced by Michael Gove, the former education secretary, universities were to take “ownership” of A levels by dictating their content and reviewing them annually.

The reforms would address concerns from academics that A levels did not stretch students intellectually and did not prepare them for university study, Mr Gove said.

However, there is now uncertainty over what role universities will play in monitoring the qualifications after the Russell Group mothballed the body that it formed 18 months ago to oversee this process.

The A Level Content Advisory Board is to be registered as a dormant company after it was informed by the Department for Education that it would not receive any more substantive work until at least 2017, when the first students will sit the reformed A levels.

In a letter published last month, Nicky Morgan, the education secretary, says that Alcab’s long-term role in assessing A levels is not assured because it will “depend on [exams watchdog] Ofqual’s plans for a post-qualifications review process”.

The suspension of Alcab is likely to disappoint many academics keen for the sector to retain a role in ensuring the exam’s rigour.

Isabel Nisbet, Alcab’s executive director, argued that “universities must continue to be involved in A levels”. She said it would have been a good idea for lecturers to help to create the new exams as they advised on their content in three subject areas.

“The success of Alcab will depend on what the qualifications look like,” said Ms Nisbet, a former chief executive of Ofqual. “It is important that the spirit of thinking from our subject panels remains [when exams are drawn up].”

Stephen Parker, the Henry Simon professor of German at the University of Manchester and leader of Alcab’s modern foreign and classical languages review panel, said the sector’s involvement with A levels must not be a one-off.

“You cannot leave the qualifications for seven years or so without review,” he said. “Returning to check the implementation of these new examinations and all the follow-up work is very important.”

The failure to commit to an academic-led review might be viewed as the latest weakening of Mr Gove’s reforms since he was sacked as education secretary in July last year.

Although Mr Gove had suggested that all A levels would be scrutinised by academics at top universities, most were deemed broadly fit for purpose in a process overseen by Mark E. Smith, the vice-chancellor of Lancaster University. Only three subjects underwent major reviews.

Some of Alcab’s recommendations have been shelved after proving unpopular with teachers in a DfE consultation. For instance, the board’s call for language students to write an analytic essay in English on a foreign text to improve critical thinking was dropped because teachers felt the component would demand too much classroom time.

Professor Parker insisted nonetheless that Alcab’s impact had been substantial. Before the review, he said, A levels “had been diluted in content in the interests of improving access” and their “irreducible core had been eroded”.

“For example, there was no requirement to read a book in the language of study,” he said of modern language A levels before the changes.

A DfE spokeswoman said the department would “continue to involve universities in A level reform”. It had asked Alcab to review content in three subject areas and it had successfully completed this work, she added.

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