Changes to A-levels: improving the quality of learning?

A report in today’s Sunday Times, highlights concerns expressed by the Education Secretary Michael Gove, about the structure of assessment in British secondary education.  As the paper reported, “Michael Gove wants to see A-levels become more academically rigorous and to scrap AS-levels, which are in the first year of the sixth form … He is responding to complaints by universities that the current A-level system, introduced in 2000, fails to prepare pupils for in-depth study”.

As the Sunday Times goes on to observe, Gove “will invite universities to design new A-levels, modelled on the new Cambridge Pre-U qualification, taken by a number of leading state and independent schools in preference to A-levels. Gove said: ‘We will see fewer modules and more exams at the end of two years of sixth form and, as a result, a revival of the art of deep thought'”.

There is absolutely no doubt that in terms of academic rigour most students who are educated in the British education system today lack many of the skills required to undertake a traditional university education successfully.  This is one of the factors underlying the dumbing down of standards in British universities that has occurred over the last decade.  The reform of A-levels may therefore be able to contribute to the training of young people’s minds so that they can better cope with the intellectual rigours required of a high quality university education.

However, this is only part of the story.  Many young people work incredibly hard for their A-levels, and perform outstandingly well at good universities – even under the present system.  Our secondary schools also provides them with a diversity of skills and other experiences that were simply not available a decade ago.  Such skills are important – but do not necessarily fit them for intellectually rigorous university degrees. Let us not decry the huge achievements of our young people who have gained excellent A-level grades over the last decade, and their teachers who have struggled to help them learn whilst also navigating the ever increasing amount of regulation imposed on them.

Yes, universities are indeed about training people’s minds, encouraging them to think beyond the confines of existing knowledges, and developing the incredibly important skill of critical analysis.  But we should not expect 50% of our young people to be interested in doing this, or indeed to be able to do it successfully!  We do need rigorous ways of accessing people’s aptitude to enter a high quality university system, and the present AS and A2 system has undoubtedly failed to do this.  However, so-called university courses that cater for the apparent demand for dumbed down mass higher education system do not need rigorous A-levels as a mechanism for judging the quality of applicants. If you can get into a university today with C, D and E grades under the present A-level system, it seems to be to be very clear that these universities are not actually interested in the skills that new, more rigorous and intellectually challenging A-levels might provide.

We must have an intellectually vibrant and challenging university system in this country.  But until it is accepted that this means we need fewer universities, and that other forms of further education are more appropriate for perhaps a quarter of our young people, tinkering with the examinations that young people  undertake at the end of secondary education will make little difference.


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