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Elizabeth Truss MP: Universities must have a role in ensuring that A-Levels remain academically rigorous

Elizabeth Truss 2010 Elizabeth Truss is Conservative MP for South West Norfolk.

Modularisation has been creeping into the education system for many years; parcelling up education into bite size chunks, making it more easily digestible for students. Universities have had modular courses since the 1990s and before. Modularisation was put into A-Levels in 2000, which squeezed subjects like Mathematics into blocks and led to a catastrophic fall in numbers studying the subject - as well as worsening it as a preparation for University.

Despite all of this failure, progress appears relentless. Labour’s QCDA (now being abolished) was responsible for the introduction of modular GCSE Mathematics this September. In primary schools, children are taught in “blocks” which are then split into “units”.

Some will argue that modular examinations are not inherently bad. They can be designed so that subjects like Mathematics are taught in a sequential way and that builds on the previous knowledge.  However, this is not the way that it has worked in practice. Subjects are sliced up, making it harder for pupils to grasp the fundamental concepts. Layered subjects like Mathematics build on previous knowledge. One cannot learn and forget and move on to the next module, and the “one piece jigsaws” that are studied bore pupils and make it less interesting. The beauty of an academic discipline is the “eureka moment” when all of the hard work comes to fruition.

Modularisation has been introduced to “motivate” and “encourage” pupils, to provide stepping stones to the final result. The subtext is that knowledge for its own sake is not enjoyable or fun, a series of tests must be passed for learning to have any meaning.  There has been an attempt to fix problems in the education system, for example a shortage of qualified Mathematics teachers or unaccountable schools, by adjusting the qualifications system. Like printing money to promote economic growth, the number of exams taken has been increased to stimulate intellectual growth. This has resulted in grade inflation and weakened the underlying discipline required to make genuine progress.

What should have been tests of a student’s performance have been used to judge schools and the government. This has created all sorts of perverse incentives such as focus on borderline students and pushing all A-Levels to be equivalent to each other (for example Further Mathematics should be no harder than Mathematics).

We need to take the opposite approach.

Standards should be anchored in academic disciplines and change needs to take place in schools and teaching, not shifting the goalposts. In the case of A-Levels, this would be about universities having the power to ensure exams are set to prepare students for university courses (I have found that employers would rather have qualifications approved by universities than by a Quango for students that leave school at 18). This could be maintained with the existing examination bodies system and universities acting as custodian/regulator.

For the Government to have faith that school leavers are keeping up with international competitors, a different mechanism should be used so that students’ results are not skewed by political objectives. Thus, I think it would be the wrong approach to compare questions for different countries as this does not take account of the overall body of knowledge or the style of marking that would be used.

We should instead expand the current TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) arrangements that assess the performance of students in other OECD countries sitting the same test. TIMSS, run by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement and carried out every four years, measures and compares the performance of fourth and eighth grade students from over 40 countries in Mathematics and the sciences. PISA, which is run by the OECD, takes place every three years and measures reading ability as well as performance in Mathematics and the sciences.

Achieving change at a ground level will take a number of years and will involve real power being handed to universities as the custodians of academic knowledge.  Gradually they could also be involved in the entry requirement for A-Level and hence the standard to be reached at GCSE. In the short term the Government needs to get a grip on Mathematics GCSE (which is being developed into two qualifications) and Mathematics A-Levels, which are already underway. The involvement of leading academics in the development of these new qualifications should ensure there is a rigorous linear approach.

As a country we need to rediscover a thirst for knowledge. The 472,000 students applying for fewer than 9,000 places at the Indian Institutes of Technology this year do not have to be “motivated” to take exams. If Britain constantly sends out the message to students that education for itself is not interesting enough, that modular exams are needed to keep them going, we will destroy the love of learning and our long term prosperity.


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