A letter from Education Secretary Michael Gove to the head of Ofqual, the examinations regulator, has revealed his concerns that A-levels are not challenging enough. Gove made the controversial suggestion that universities should have greater control over A-level exam content, but the idea has met with a mixed reception from teachers and universities alike.
Whilst head of Ofqual Glenys Stacey agreed with Gove that input from universities would be the best course of action to improve A-levels, one teachers union denounced the plans, labelling them a “quick fix” and suggesting that they were just one more plaster to cover the gaping holes in a system that needed a complete overhaul.
Meanwhile, though leading universities of the elite Russell Group indicated that they were happy to provide guidance to exam boards where possible, they also stressed the fact that they are unlikely to have the time or resources to take on the responsibility of any major involvement. This apparent rejection of the minister’s plans on logistical grounds could be something of an embarrassment, suggesting a lack of knowledge on his part of the inner organisational workings of the higher education system.
The proposals, which could come into force as early as September 2014, would see universities given greater sway over the content of A-level courses, which would likely herald a move towards more challenging questions requiring independent thought and creativity, to end the culture of ‘teaching to the test’ that has recently become a major problem with the education and exam board system.
This could be a positive move, as it would encourage testing on the grounds of individual merit and academic initiative rather than simply awarding the highest grades to those students whose teachers are best acquainted with the formulaic layout of many examination papers. It would also reward those students able to use their intelligence to produce original ideas in response to questions, rather than those able to learn reams of information parrot-fashion and simply regurgitate it.
Teachers criticised the plans for not taking into account the fact that A-levels need to prepare students for more than just the move to university, whilst expressing disappointment that Gove had made the decision to approach Ofqual about the changes before consulting teachers.
The implementation of Gove’s proposals could also hold organisational challenges, with questions raised about which universities would be invited to influence course content. Many academic subjects are taught very differently at different higher education institutions throughout the country, with subjects like modern languages, for example, varying widely in their focus on culture, language, literature or history. It would be unfair and unhelpful to design an A-level course that would prepare students better for courses at certain universities than at others.
It is also unclear whether the scheme would encompass all subjects or focus more specifically on traditional ‘academic’ areas, with more vocational courses like design technology and business studies presumably standing to gain less from university involvement than others.