Archive for A-levels

Offa’s Irrelevance

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , on February 18, 2012 by telescoper

There is leader column in today’s Grauniad about the University entrance system which, it rightly says, is “in a mess”. It’s good to have discussion of this subject in the press but the problem is that, in the typical fashion of a Guardian editorial, this piece is worthy in sentiment but misses the basic point entirely.

The reason for visiting the theme of student access to Higher Education at this point is the kerfuffle surrounding the appointment of the next boss of Offa – the Office For Fair Access – a quango set up by the previous New Labour Administration to ensure that universities do everything possible to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to go to University. A laudable aim, but doomed to failure at the outset. The reason for this is that the system of post-16 education is fundamentally flawed (as it clearly is), then no “Access Czar”, however powerful, can hope to accomplish the vast amount of reverse-engineering required to ensure that universities can cope with failures earlier in the system. Just look at how useless Ofgen has been at regulating energy prices, for example, another case of a flawed system impervious to a quango’s attempts to improve it.

The point which is missing – and which our political masters and the educational establishment alike refuse to acknowledge – is that GCE Advanced Levels are neither an adequate preparation for University study nor a reliable way to select applications on their suitability for a given course. People who actually work in Higher Education know that this is true, but the Power That Be won’t recognize it and instead maintain that A-levels constitute a “Gold Standard”. The fact is that in the hands of Examination Boards that compete for business by lowering their standards, A-levels have become nothing other more than base metal, and tarnished to boot.

If I had my way we wouldn’t use A-levels at all to determine whether a student gets a place at their chosen University. I’ve seen so many examples of absolutely brilliant students who entered Cardiff University with modest A-levels – often having not got into their first choice institution and coming to us through the clearing system – that I’m sure there are many excellent potential students out there who didn’t get into university at all. The other side of the coin is that many students who get top A-level grades across the board don’t flourish at university at all. It’s my experience that A-levels are no guide at all to a student’s ability to do well on a course.

If you don’t believe this, then ask yourself the following question. If Cambridge only takes students with grade A* at A-level, why don’t all their students end up with First Class Degrees?

Any attempt to fix the severe problems that beset the student entrance system must begin with a recognition that this is where the fault lies.

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.

Good luck to whoever it is that takes over at Offa, but it won’t make any difference who’s on the bridge because the ship is already on the rocks.

Acting and Clearing

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on August 14, 2011 by telescoper

Now that I’m back from my trip to Copenhagen, it’s going to be back to work with a vengeance. To those of you who think academics have massively long summer breaks, I can tell you that mine ends on Monday when I will be doing a stint as Acting Head of School. That’s not usually a particularly onerous task during the summer months, but next week happens to be the week that A-level results come out and it promises to be a hectic and critical period. It’s obviously a sheer coincidence that all the other senior professors have decided to take their leave at this time…

There are several reasons for this being a particularly stressful time. First the  number of potential students applying to study Physics (and related subjects) this forthcoming academic year (2011/12) in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University was up by a whopping 53% on last year. I blogged about this a few months ago when it became obvious that we were having a bumper year.

The second reason is that Cardiff’s  School of Physics & Astronomy has been given a big increase in funded student numbers  from HEFCW. In fact we’ve been given an extra 60 funded places (over two years), which is a significant uplift in our quota and a much-needed financial boost for the School. This has happened basically because of HECFW‘s desire to bolster STEM subjects as part of a range of measures related to the Welsh Assembly Government’s plans for the regions. Preparations have been made to accommodate the extra students in tutorial groups and we’re even modifying one of our larger lecture rooms to increase capacity.

Unfortunately the extra places were announced after the normal applications cycle was more-or-less completed, so the admissions team had been proceeding on the basis that demand would exceed supply for this year so has set our undergraduate offers rather high. In order to fill the extra places that have been given to us late in the day, even with our vastly increased application numbers, we will  almost certainly have to go into the clearing system to recruit some of the extra students.

In case you didn’t realise,  universities actually get a sneak preview of the A-level results a couple of days before the applicants receive them. This helps us plan our strategy, whether to accept “near-misses”, whether to go into clearing, etc.

On top of these local factors there is the sweeping change in tuition fees coming in next year (2012-13). Anxious to avoid the vastly increased cost of future university education many fewer students will be opting to defer entry than in previous years. Moreover, some English universities have had cuts in funded student places making entry highly competitive. As an article in today’s Observer makes clear, this all means that clearing is likely to be extremely frantic this year.

And once that’s out of the way I’ll be working more-or-less full time until late September on business connected with the STFC Astronomy Grants Panel, a task likely to be just as stressful as UCAS admissions for both panel members and applicants.

Ho hum.

Grade Inflation

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on August 12, 2010 by telescoper

Still too busy to post anything too substantial, but since this year’s A-level results are out next week – with the consequent scramble for University places – I thought I’d take a few minutes to share this  graph (taken from an article on the BBC website) which shows the steady dumbing-down improvement of educational standards student performance over the last few decades.

Nowadays, on average, about 27 per cent of students taking an A-level get a grade A. When I took mine (in 1981, if you must ask) the fraction getting an A was about 9%. It’s scary to think that I belong to a generation that must be so much less intelligent than the current one. Or could it be – dare I say it? – that A-level examinations might be getting easier?

Looking at the graph makes it clear that something happened around the mid-1980s that initiated an almost linear growth in the percentage of A-grades. I don’t know what will happen when the results come out next week, but it’s a reasonably safe bet that the trend will continue.

I can’t speak for other subjects, but there’s no question whatsoever that the level of achievement needed to get an A-grade in mathematics is much lower now than it was in the past. This has been proven over and over again. A few years ago, an article in the Times Higher discussed the evidence, including an analysis of the performance of new students on a diagnostic mathematics test they had to take on entering University.  The same test, covering basic algebra, trigonometry and calculus, had been administered every year so provided a good diagnostic of real mathematical ability that could be compared with the A-level grades achieved by the students.  They found, among other things, that students entering university with a grade B in mathematics in 1999 performed at about the same level as students in 1991 who had failed mathematics A-level.

The steadily decreasing level of mathematical training students receive in schools poses great problems not only for mathematics courses, but also for subjects like physics. We have to devote so much more time on the physics equivalent of “basic training” that we struggle to cover all the physics we should be covering in a degree program. Thus the dumbing down of A-levels leads to pressure to dumb down degrees too.

That brings me to the prospect of huge cuts – up to 35% if the stories are true – in government funding for universities, leading to pressure to shorten the traditional three-year Bachelors degree to one that takes only two years to complete. If this goes ahead it won’t be long before a student can get a degree by achieving the same level of knowledge as would have been displayed by an A-level student 30 years ago. Are we supposed to call this progress?

Or perhaps this business about two year degrees all really  does make sense. Maybe we should just accept that universities have to offer such courses because the school system has become broken beyond repair over the last 30 years, and it will be up to certain Higher Education institutions from now on to do the job that school sixth-forms used to do, i.e. teach A-levels.