By Gove, I agree!

I never thought the day would come, but I have to admit it. I agree with Michael Gove. There. I said it.

Not with everything he says, of course. But I do think that universities should take over responsibility for the examinations required for University Entrance, currently known as A-levels. Here is an excerpt from an old post on this, and I’ve said much the same thing on several other occasions:

So what’s the solution? I think it is to scrap A-levels entirely, and give the system of pre-university qualifications over to the people who actually know what students need to know to cope with their courses, i.e. the universities. There should be a single national system of University Entrance Examinations, set and moderated by an Examination Board constituted by university teachers. This will provide the level playing field that we need. No system can ever be perfect of course, but this is the best way I can think of to solve the biggest problem with the current one. Not that it will ever happen. There are just too many vested interests happy with the status quo despite the fact that it is failing so many of our young people.

But lest you all think I’ve turned into a Conservative, let me point out that the fault with the current system is precisely that market forces have operated to the detriment of educational standards. The GCE examination boards compete for customers by offering easier and easier examinations each year, regardless of what students need to know to cope with University courses. What I advocate is renationalisation.  I bet Mr Gove doesn’t like it put that way…

Oh and another thing. I think universities should be given this task, but should also be paid for doing it just as the examination boards now are. That way it will not be treated as yet another imposition from the top, but an important task that has a similar status within a university as teaching and research.

18 Responses to “By Gove, I agree!”

  1. “the examinations required for University Entrance, currently known as A-levels”

    Hemm. In England and Wales. Hemm.

    But this doesn’t spoil your point.

    • Right, in Scotland they are not called A-levels, also not in Germany, France, Sweden, Liechtenstein,…. I could go on and on. I don’t think anyone from these countries, however, will point this out. Why not? Probably because they assume Peter is writing about the country he works in.

      Your comment assumes that Peter was assuming, although he did not state it, that his remark applies to Scotland as well. But maybe he treats Scotland like Germany. Isn’t that the goal of Scottish nationalism, not being included by default in discussions of England, and certainly not Wales?

      Now that you’ve got what you want, please be happy. 🙂

      • Phillip. Nobody sane actually wants independence. We just need to keep frightening Westminster. Subtle differences within a federal system seems about right to me. So I don’t want it and I haven’t got it, so I have got what I want. If you see what I mean.

      • Right, I see what you mean. I always assumed that those television commercials with Sean Connery (probably not recorded in Scotland) were enough to continue frightening Westminster. .-)

  2. One danger with turning A-levels over to universities is that it ignores the fact that not everyone who takes A-levels goes on to university, or wants to. For some A-levels will be their final and highest academic qualification. Gearing the A-level system only to those who continue to university could be a disservice to those who do not (though I have no idea what the proportions here are).

    Perhaps a combined syllabus for post-16 with the option of taking general and/or pre-university exams at the end, might be an alternative, though with the raft of entrance tests applicants to Oxbridge have to take this is almost the system we currently have.

    In one particular area I do agree strongly with what Gove appears to be proposing. It needs to be made clear what A-levels (and other qualifications) are ‘approved’ by universities and this then communicated to 16 year olds deciding which subjects to study. My better half used to teach in a comprehensive in West London and would frequently find that able students were taking A-levels in subjects like sociology and the dreaded media studies and thus had effectively closed the door on many universities. Often the students had been told by teachers that taking those subjects would harm their chances when applying to universities.

    • Dave Carter Says:

      Stuart, I am interested to know in what way an A Level in Sociology closes the door on many universities, given that the majority of universities in England, including most Russell group universities offer either a sociology degree, or joint honours degrees of which sociology is a part. In fact I am not convinced that I can find one which doesn’t.

      • Just because a subject is considered rigorous at one level, it does not necessarily follow that it is at another. Consider law – certainly in the premier league of degree subjects, you could not really say the same for its standing at A-level.

        My experience is only anecdotal and second-hand, but some students were explicitly told that their choice of A-levels had harmed their admission prospects. Trinity College Cambridge keeps a list of how it considers each subject – if you want to study a science or humanities degree there it would appear wise not to do sociology.

        As for a Russell group uni that does not offer sociology – Imperial…

      • Dave Carter Says:

        Law is a vocational degree course, much like nursing or golf course management. Nothing wrong with that, and a variety of universities offer such subjects, but they would be inappropriate at A level.

  3. Dave Carter Says:

    Peter, I think your last paragraph is a touch hopeful, we are all in this together and the universities have to do their bit by taking on this task, which hitherto someone was paid to do. Big Society, innit? You have more time now to do this since much of your research money was taken off you.

    • ian smail Says:

      two thoughts:

      1. i agree with AXL – i thought A-levels weren’t either the sole means of entry to universities or (equally) the sole reason for the qualification. hence i’m not sure why universities should take over just this activity if we’re supposed to make the requirements more rigorous.

      2. even ~25 years ago when i did A-levels – there were differences between the different boards. the various pressures on results since then have perhaps exacerbated these pressures to make some A-levels easier than others. the most obvious solution to this from my perspective is simply to have a single A-level setting authority – at which point at least they won’t be competing for the lowest common denominator… and they might be easier to police the long-term variation in the difficulty of the exam and its relevance to modern job seekers and university entrants.

      hope SA is sunny – we’ve gone from blizzard to blue skies here today…

  4. ian smail Says:

    …two points:

    1. i agree with AXL – the sole purpose of A-levels is not university entrance exams and not all people entering universities have A levels.

    2. part of the problem with the current A-levels is the pressure of them to drive down to the lowest common denominator – because of market forces between exam boards (this was clear ~25 years ago when i took them). so one solution would be to have a single exam board overseeing the whole system. at least then it would be easier to police the drift in quality as a function of time.

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    Now that the Regius E-Astronomer has pointed out that A-levels are sat by students in England and Wales [and Northern Ireland] but not in Scotland, perhaps I could add that you in Wales effectively have a nationalised examination board. The WJEC (the Welsh Joint Education Committee) was formed by Welsh local councils and is still owned jointly by them. A majority of students in Welsh sit examination set by it. The WJEC does compete with the English boards for “customers”, and so operates within the same marketplace, with the same pressures.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I meant to type “A majority of students in Wales sit”.

      • Keithhere Says:

        I have just discovered this after the piece in Physics World. I am as unfamiliar with all this as my keyboard is with my intentions!
        Fascinated to hear about universities setting the bar for a levels. A university department sees only a fraction of the students taking A level, I suspect the majority of students taking physics A level go no further with a smile in their hearts, what tey want desparately is the A grade that will get them into a ‘good’ university to study medicine or geography or music maybe. There is a whole range of requirements of which universities actually experience only very marrow part. Become more involved (~like the 80’s) but let’s remember the teachers who do quite understand the full function of the 18+ measuring stick. What ‘management’ need to do is to decide what they want to do with it.

      • telescoper Says:

        Education should be about learning something, not just getting an A grade on some irrelevant exam. It is an insult to the intelligence of our young people to assume that they can’t cope with challenging material. They can. They’re just taught that learning is much less important than passing exams.

  6. Keithhere Says:

    Education, and passing on what is exciting, interesting, challenging and fun is just what the teacher does day in, week out. The measuring stick, exam, at the end is just that and is the key to the next phase,it is also a chance for the student to judge how well they have done but there is tremendous pressure on achieving grades, and mostly not from schools. Exams and education should be separated.
    I agree that the current expectation at A level is dreadful. We have an easy syllabus and ‘tricksy’ questions, so they are not exposed to the hard stuff unless the teacher goes beyond the syllabus. I think we should have much more demanding material on the curriculum – we are selling short our brighter pupils – and more straightforward questions at the end.
    They certainly understand the effect of A level exams,I hope they pick up some ‘education’ on the way.

  7. […] the same worry about finding myself in agreement with Michael Gove, at least on a few things; see here, for example. Anyway, this piece makes some very good points about the corruption of the GCSE […]

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