Changes put forward by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, in the way A Levels are set have been met with a mixed response. In a letter to the qualifications watchdog, Ofqual, Gove said that Russell Group universities should take the lead, in favour of government-funded exam boards.
The University of York was invited to join the Russell Group of universities last month and Dr David Duncan, the University’s academic Registrar, has declared his support for the reform, saying, “there has been evidence of grade inflation over the past 30 years.”
University lecturers at Russell Group universities will take the lead in setting the new exams. It is hoped that the new exams, expected to be harder, will make it easier to discern between top students.
However, academic staff at York have not been consulted on the matter, according to Dr Duncan who admitted, “views would differ across different disciplines, from one individual to the next.”
Released on the same day were the results of a study conducted by Cambridge Assessment saying that students were unable to structure essays and employ grammar and spelling effectively, having been spoon-fed through A Levels. New-style exams would employ longer essay questions in order to emulate university level study.
Dr Duncan does however make it clear that York is unlikely to set its own entrance exams because it would “consume large amounts of academic time that might be better used for core teaching and research.”
Gove’s move is welcomed by the 1994 Group of universities, of which York is a former member. “The best way to improve A Levels would be to marshal the UK’s full range of academic expertise rather than that of an arbitrarily selected cadre.”
However, there is concern that making core subjects, such as Maths, English and Science, more challenging will drive students towards ‘soft’ subjects.
Dr Duncan believes “this can be countered with sound guidance at school level. From 2012, we will have a new team of staff who will liaise with schools, especially in disadvantaged areas, and advise them on the subject choices which will give their pupils the best chance of receiving an offer.”
However, he admitted that as a new member, York would not have any locus in Russell Group policy arenas until the end of the summer.
Perhaps more of a concern is criticism that Gove’s new initiative focuses too narrowly on top universities. Liam Burns, NUS President, called the changes “at best hopelessly naïve and at worst a purposefully elitist call to return to the top-down culture of the 1950s.”
Alongside the rise in tuition fees, coming into force this September, the increased university control is seen to be symptomatic of the edging-out of broader study. Burns emphasises that the changes “must cater for a wide variety of learners and foster a wide diversity of routes to study and work which increasingly require flexibility.”
The National Union of Teachers also expressed concern over the government’s preoccupation on the last two years of students’ education: “An obsession with league tables and unnecessary testing is stifling education from the reception class onwards.”
It is hoped that new syllabuses in Maths, English and Sciences will be taught from 2014, with examinations starting in 2016. Currently the changes will only apply to England, however it is hoped that they will be adopted by Wales and Northern Ireland.