A-level reforms

The summer holiday’s getting rather more school-oriented by now – writing UCAS references, checking personal statements, and of course A-level results this week and GCSE next week.  In addition to that, I went to one of the Ofqual consultation events about A-level reform last Friday.

It was interesting to see who else went along. This consultation was aimed at a mixture of people, so as well as teachers, there were advisers and people from Higher Education. The teachers, I fear, were nowhere near a typical cross-section; the independent sector was vastly over-represented, and so were maths & science.  Interesting to speculate on the reasons for the subject bias – perhaps we are more naturally opinionated? Or just more worried what they’ll do to our subjects?  Can’t really explain the sector bias, unless there’s less of a tendency to tell people about such events in state schools – but it really was rather a pity not to get a wider range.

Some of the proposals are very alarming.

At the beginning, they describe the objective of an A-level to “define and assess achievement of the knowledge, skills and understanding which will be needed for Learners planning to progress to undergraduate study at a UK higher education institution, particularly (although not only) to study the subject concerned”.

Now, nothing would please me more than having the majority of my A-level maths students wanting to study maths at university. But it isn’t like that – and it’s never been like that, and it never will be.  And the key point is – how I would design Maths A-level if it was intended for those wanting to study maths is radically different to how I’d design it for the range of students I actually do have. I’m sure that’s equally true in subjects like Chemistry (where many are doing it to progress to careers in the medical field). We can’t have an A-level designed principally for the needs of a small minority.

Then we have the business of university involvement. They are going to require each A-level qualification to “…have the support of at least 20 UK universities, at least 12 of which are respected in the specific field of study and/or from those deemed to be leading research institutions”.

Now this is basically saying that they want involvement from “top” universities. OK, I’ll leave aside the question of whether universities are clued up enough about what 16 year-olds are like to be able to design an A-level curriculum.  But there’s a big issue here:  Russell Group and 1994 Group universities don’t have experience of students who are achieving at the lower end of the A-level scale, and most candidates don’t go to Russell Group or even 1994 Group universities.  So what they are suggesting is that institutions with minimal experience of (or, I suspect, interest in) a majority of the students sitting A-level should decide what all A-level students should learn ??!!?? A bit like putting rich people in charge of deciding taxation levels for all! (Oh, hang on, they do that, don’t they…) If they want university involvement, then get it from the full range of universities – maybe in the proportions in which they take students.

I’m a bit worried about the idea of universities signing up to support particular qualifications anyway. I can just imagine the sort of conversations with parents “Well, why are you doing Edexcel Maths, when you’ve only got UCL and Bristol supporting that – Cambridge and Imperial support OCR”.

It also gives a minimum requirement for university support, but no minimum requirement for school consultation (though it does say consulting us would be a good idea, to be fair)

Then we have the proposal of a “phased introduction” – the idea that new-style A-levels would be introduced in some subjects earlier than others. Can you imagine the chaos and confusion with different subjects operating on different rules?  Their timescales are not terribly realistic anyway to my mind – they were thinking of having the earliest ones ready for teaching in September 2014 – how on earth would that work with consultation, revisions, specimen papers, new schemes of work etc etc etc??

To be fair, there are sensible parts of the consultation document- eg reducing the numbers of resit opportunities to cut down on the “resit culture”, and reducing the number of component modules (although demodularising school-based exams is not quite consistent with the modular approach favoured by many universities). There were also some obvious common-sense things – eg you should set valid types of question, and avoid different exam boards differing in difficulty (although their decision not to have common subject criteria for subjects rather negates that, I fear).

But as a whole, it did feel like something devised without sufficient thought or long-term vision, to solve a problem that hadn’t really been well-defined or analysed.  We wouldn’t expect that from our dear Mr Gove, now would we?

Edited to add: You might also be interested to read this article discussing related points:

http://www.birminghampost.net/comment/birmingham-columnists/more-columnists/2012/08/24/sarah-evans-does-any-exam-test-intelligence-65233-31682674/

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