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Elizabeth Truss: Universities should be put in charge of A Levels

Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss is Deputy Director of the independent think tank Reform, and co-author of its new report,  A new level, which is published today and concludes that today’s students are being badly let down by the A-level system.

The relationship between politicians and academics has not always been an easy one. However, a reforming Government should view universities as allies in the battle for intellectual integrity and the starting point in abolishing the ersatz academic qualifications that are emerging from government quangos. This reform should start with the A-Level, which is the most popular choice at 16 (46% do it), the entrance exam for university (76% go on to higher education) and the pace-setter for all of school qualifications.

Reform’s new report published today, shows that an absence of academic authority has led to “sat-nav” A-levels that fail to make students think and do not prepare them for university. We present analysis by academics in English, Mathematics, Chemistry and History. It finds that the imposition of six separately examined modules in 2000 created a “learn and forget” culture where holistic subjects have been balkanised. Like using sat-nav rather than a map, students no longer have to think about what they are doing and examiners are prohibited from exercising judgement.

Hollow exams containing “nonsense questions” are prescribed by bureaucrats, not academics. In the sciences, many parted questions direct students through each part of a problem. In the arts, prescriptive marking guidance running to many pages prohibits examiners from rewarding originality, creativity and flair. Students are obliged to use “somebody else’s mind”.

Academic coherence has been abandoned in the hope that the numbers of students staying on after 16 would be transformed.  At the heart of this policy choice is a patronising assumption that the only way to widen participation is to lower standards rather than raising aspiration. But even if one were to accept this fatalist dictum - it has not worked. Participation increased by 36 per cent between 1987 and 1997 when a linear syllabus was still in place. In the following decade, when modularisation became widespread, participation increased by only 8 per cent. Despite this, the number and cost of A-level exams has more than doubled since 2000.

Universities are left to pick up the pieces. In our extensive discussions with academics, they report a generation of “high maintenance students” who seek constant advice and are not as capable of reasoning as those entering university in the 1990s. This is not just Russell Group students studying sciences; this diminution is taking place in arts subjects such as English and in the new universities.

However, they are badly placed to do anything about it. Since they first instituted A-levels in the 1880s, universities have gradually relinquished their role. The link became weaker in the 1970s and 1980s, with teachers and bureaucrats taking over responsibility. Now A-levels are run by two quangos: the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and the Office of the Qualifications and Examinations Regulator (Ofqual). There are no academics on Ofqual’s management group or committee or on the QCA’s executive. Of the 13 members of the QCA board only two work in education and neither are practicing subject academics.

The DCSF have introduced new proposals that will only serve to weaken academic study even further. The new academic Diplomas – which Michael Gove has already committed to scrap – conflate academic and vocational education, having a negative impact on both. The QCA’s new consultation on maths which includes the introduction of a new “use of maths” A-level with minimal academic content should be abandoned.

Furthermore, universities should be put in charge of A-levels, taking on the roles currently in the hands of the QCA and Ofqual. Subject academics are best placed to restore academic integrity to the exams. Our report recommends giving Heads of Department groups the responsibility, to provide a direct subject link and avoid the need to establish yet another quango. A minimum standard should be approved for existing exam boards or any potential entrants by these university groups. Otherwise the risk is that schools might try to take easier exams to game league tables in an as-yet-unreformed school system.

Reinvigoration of the A-level would be a great starting point to raising standards and aspirations. Rather than worrying about what students are capable of, we should be thinking what they need to be able to do. An alliance between academics and reforming politicians to create this change would have positive reverberations throughout education.


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