Exam regulator in the front line

Exam regulator in the front line

guardian.co.uk |July 2, 2012

Glenys Stacey, chief executive of Ofqual, the exams regulator

Glenys Stacey, chief executive of Ofqual, says: ‘If we moved to a single exam board, the transitional risks would be very significant’. Photograph: Andrew Fox

When foot and mouth disease struck Britain in 2007, Glenys Stacey was in the front line. As chief executive of Animal Health (formerly the State Veterinary Service), her job was to ensure it didn’t spread. In that, as she proudly explains, she was successful, averting the crisis in British agriculture and tourism caused by the outbreak of 2001. “We had about a dozen outbreaks and we contained them all,” she says. We may have her to thank that meat supplies weren’t wiped out and that, when the virulent H5N1 virus was found among Suffolk turkeys, we didn’t all fall victim to avian flu.

But can she now cope with what some would describe as an outbreak of Mad Gove Disease? In March last year, she became chief executive of Ofqual, the examinations regulator. If the education secretary goes ahead with plans to scrap the GCSE, bring back O-levels and put them under a single exam board, she will have to make them work. When we meet at the Commonwealth Club in London, I ask if she knew about them before they were leaked (by Gove himself, according to some accounts)?

“We’ve known for months,” she says, “that ministers were concerned about the quality of GCSE qualifications. Our job is to give ministers wise and timely advice about how policy aims should be met and how transition can be managed without putting standards at risk. We’ve had opportunities to provide that advice.”

Which I take to be a “yes”. So what was that advice? “Significant change takes very careful planning indeed and, in that time, children are still taking exams and still need viable qualifications. We have to advise the minister on what is an achievable timetable. It depends on the details. His immediate interests are in English, maths and science. It makes sense to focus on some subjects, not all, and to choose the hard-hitting ones that affect people’s life chances.” The implication – though she won’t confirm it – is that Gove may have to rethink his ambitious timetable to scrap GCSEs by 2014.

Ofqual is answerable to parliament, not to Gove, but John Bangs, a former National Union of Teachers official, now a visiting professor at London University’s Institute of Education, says “it acts as if accountable to the secretary of state”. That view was shared by others I spoke to, but Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education at Buckingham University, was more generous: “She has brought a sharp brain and considerable political skills to the job. She briefs herself very thoroughly. She knows the world in which she has to operate. She navigates the political landscape, rather than confronting it.” The political reality, he said, is that “she may be at arm’s length from Gove, but it’s not a very long arm”.

Stacey herself says: “It’s a relationship. Government can take a policy decision on qualifications but, if it tries to change the nature of assessment, and we believe that will affect standards, it’s our obligation to say no.”

So far, there has been no overt clash. On the contrary, Stacey shares many of Gove’s concerns on GCSE and has striven “to strengthen the qualification, to get it to where it should be”. When she arrived at Ofqual, she dismissed grade inflation – the suggestion that “dumbed down” papers and more lenient marking made it easier to get top grades – as a “not very helpful expression” and argued that it could be attributable to “young people being taught well and working hard”. A year later, after looking at data that “just didn’t make sense” and discussing it with “real experts in assessment”, she said there had been “persistent grade inflation … over at least a decade” at both GCSE and A-level.

She ordered that some GCSE syllabuses be rewritten to ensure candidates cover wider ground; agreed to Gove’s demands that marks be awarded for grammar, spelling and punctuation, albeit so far only in four subjects; launched a review of “controlled assessment” (a new version of “continuous assessment”), arguing that it eats too much into teaching time; and announced a review of how GCSE results are graded. When we first talked at Ofqual’s headquarters in Coventry, two weeks before Gove’s plans were revealed, she echoed another of the minister’s concerns: the growth of non-academic GCSE courses. “Should there be a GCSE in flower arranging?” she asked. “Where is the line drawn? I don’t have a predetermined view, but at the moment the line isn’t drawn.”

On one matter on the Gove agenda – having a single exam board to set and mark GCSEs – she has seemed consistently cool. “If we moved to a single exam board,” she says, “the transitional risks would be very significant.”

For now, she says, her job is to ensure that the competitive market at GCSE and A-level operates in a “healthy” manner. Each board has an incentive to bump up pass rates so that it gets a higher share of the hefty exam entry fees. This, Gove believes, is partly responsible for grade inflation. Stacey has already banned seminars in which board representatives “coached” teachers in how to get their pupils through the exams – sometimes giving strong hints about that year’s questions – and has now begun “a very close look” at whether boards should continue publishing textbooks, which schools are naturally tempted to buy and follow slavishly. She has a new power to fine boards up to 10% of turnover for misbehaviour. Has she used it yet? “Give me a chance, we’ve only just got the power.” Has she issued any warnings? “I wouldn’t be warning them, I’d be giving notice of an intention to fine. I’m not in that position now, but I am ready.”

Stacey has a soft voice and great charm, but there is also an underlying sternness and, if I were Gove, I would be wary. She has no background in education – beyond two children and 25 years of marriage to a teacher – though she is taking an MA in educational assessment. She has spent most of her working life in important public-service jobs, yet is unknown to the public and not well-known even to practitioners in areas where she played a leading role. That may be because she has never worked in London.

Now 58, she is a living embodiment (her words) of mid-20th century social mobility. Her father was a painter and decorator, her mother a factory worker. She went to grammar school near Walsall and got “seven or eight” O-levels, but left school at 16 because that’s what people of her background did. Armed with a couple of science O-levels and (she thinks) a short skirt, she landed a job in a Royal Ordnance laboratory, quality assessing explosives. “I realised I wasn’t going to be a Nobel prizewinner, so I went to work for a local law firm, and fell into something I really enjoyed.” After taking A-levels at evening classes, she read law at Kent University before qualifying as a solicitor and working first in private practice and then for the Legal Aid Board, where she became an area manager.

Her first big job, at 43, was to set up the Criminal Cases Review Commission, created after the belated acquittals of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four on IRA bombing charges. She moved on to run the magistrates courts in Greater Manchester and, after Animal Health – the job which, to judge by the enthusiasm with which she recalls it, gave her greatest pleasure and success – she became chief executive of Standards for England, responsible for dealing with misdemeanours in local government. The latter body disappeared in the coalition government’s quango cull.

Her work there was largely about stamping out corruption. Now she is dealing with a system that Mick Waters, a former official at Ofqual’s predecessor, has described as “almost corrupt” and which has never before been properly regulated. It involves 25m exam scripts a year, 2,500 different papers, 15,000 qualifications (most of them vocational) and 180 awarding bodies. She has taken a more proactive approach to this daunting portfolio than many expected. For example, she commissioned a study of how other countries assess exams at the equivalent stage to A-level, concluding that they make far more use of teacher assessment and multiple-choice tests. On the latter front, we can expect activity.

“I have never sought a public profile,” she tells me. But before the GCSE saga is over, she will surely have one. It is impossible to believe she won’t cope.

Overhaul of GCSE results could mean fewer grades

Overhaul of GCSE results could mean fewer grades

BBC |May 17, 2012

GCSE results could be overhauled with a cut in the number of grades available suggests the exams regulator for England, Ofqual.

GCSE grades range from A* to G but a new report from the regulator questions whether this will remain the best structure in future.

The government wants a new National Curriculum with new GCSEs by 2015.

An Ofqual spokesman said the curriculum review was a timely opportunity to ask if the grading system met its purpose.

Ofqual’s new corporate plan which sets out its aims for the next three years states: “Before we implement new GCSEs to match the new National Curriculum, we will review the way in which GCSE results are reported …

“The grading structure stretches from A* to G and it is time to look now at whether this is how it should be.”

Prof Dylan William of University of London’s Institute of Education said reducing the number of grades would be a mistake.

“What would be more appropriate to have is a percentage score with a measurement error,” he said.

For example, he suggested, a candidate might score 60% plus or minus 15% for marking errors.

“The problem is, we are not honest about the inaccuracy of assessment,” he added.

Prof William said the wide range of GCSE grades was a throw-back to the days of the two tier O’ Level and CSE exam system.

GCSEs ‘irrelevant’The two grade systems overlapped with a top CSE grade being equivalent to a C grade at O’level.

Professor William also predicted that GCSEs would become increasingly irrelevant as more pupils remained in education until 19.

Sue Kirkham of the Association of School and College Leaders said the number of grades should depend on who the exams are aimed at: “If it’s for the whole cohort, then you need a wide range.

“If you want to have different qualifications for different groups of people you don’t need so many grades.”

Ms Kirkham added that reform of GCSEs should be the subject of a major consultation involving teachers, pupils and employers.

A-levels ‘could become university entrance exams’

A-levels ‘could become university entrance exams’

BBC |May 17, 2012

By Hannah Richardson BBC News education reporter

Giving academics too much influence over A-levels could turn them into university entrance exams, says private schools leader John Wood.

The chairman of the Independent Schools Association warned that schools may feel forced to choose A-level courses because of links between exam boards and universities.

The government wants universities to have more of a say in setting A-levels.

But Mr Wood says schools should be involved.

Speaking at the Association’s conference in Harrogate, Mr Wood urged the government to re-consider its decision to ask universities to drive the setting of exam syllabuses.

‘Key role’

He said: “It is absolutely right that syllabus development and the oversight of A-levels should not be the preserve of the exam boards alone.

“But we must ensure that universities are not given too much influence over the actual content of exams.

“As competition for university places increases, there is a real risk that schools will feel forced to select certain exam boards, based on their links with higher education institutions.”

Education Secretary Michael Gove has suggested elite universities should be given a key role alongside exam boards in setting and approving A-levels.

And he has asked the exams regulator, Ofqual, to oversee a process of reform.

In a letter to Ofqual last month, Mr Gove said: “I will expect the bar to be a high one: university ownership of the exams must be real and committed, not a tick-box exercise.

“I do not envisage the Department for Education having a role in the development of A-level qualifications.

“It is more important that universities are satisfied that A-levels enable young people to start their undergraduate degrees having gained the right knowledge and skills, than that ministers are able to influence content or methods of assessment.”


But Mr Wood warned there was a danger that greater university input could make exams already considered to be narrow even worse.

He said: “There is also a danger that A-levels will become so narrow that students won’t possess the independent learning skills that successful undergraduates need.”

He added that the current system did not reward students who read widely around the subjects they are studying.

This was partly because certain textbooks were targeted directly at examinations, he said.

Mr Wood added: “I would like to see a partnership between universities, those in schools and colleges and also employers’representatives, who would work with the awarding bodies to ensure that A-levels provide the best possible preparation for young people’s future study or employment.”

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Leading academics in our best universities have been clear that there are some serious problems with A-levels and they are not preparing pupils properly for rigorous degrees.

“The Department for Education is withdrawing from involvement in A-levels and improving them is now a matter primarily for good universities and exam boards.”

School spending on exams doubles to £328m in a decade

School spending on exams doubles to £328m in a decade

BBC |May 9, 2012

By Sean Coughlan BBC News education correspondent

School spending on exams rose to £328m last year – up from £154m less than a decade ago, according to figures from the exam watchdog Ofqual.

The annual report on the exam market in England, Wales and Northern Ireland also shows the number of qualifications has doubled to 18,000 in five years.

This includes 300 different A-levels, 250 AS-levels and 800 GCSE options.

Altogether in 2010-11 there were 16 million separate qualifications awarded, including vocational training.

Ofqual’s report shows the scale and cost of the qualifications market in 2010-11 – with the amount spent on exam fees rising by 8.5% on the previous year.

Rising costs

The report shows that the amount spent by schools on exams has increased above inflation every single year since 2002.

This increase has outstripped the rise in school running costs -and means that exam fees have taken a growing proportion of budgets.

The reasons for the sustained increase are suggested as higher fees, more pupils taking exams, more re-sit fees and a shift to pupils taking more expensive exams.

The average A-level fee, the report says, is now about £81 for maths and £93 for French.

Within the total of 16 million qualifications awarded there were 5.5 million GCSEs – drifting downwards from a high point of 6.2m in 2007.

The report suggests that this might be because schools are offering more non-GCSE qualifications.

The number of A-levels awarded has remained a small proportion of the overall total – 880,000, the same as the previous year.

Among the biggest areas of business for the qualifications industry is the wide range of vocational, training and basic skills awards, with eight million qualifications awarded.

There has been a continuing growth in the number of bodies awarding qualifications – rising to 179 from about 100 a decade ago.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “Our reforms to league tables mean that while GCSEs will continue to count, low-quality qualifications that don’t help young people into further study or jobs will be stripped out.”

“We are concerned about the scale of school spending on exams -this is money that could otherwise be spent on teaching.

“Expenditure on exams, including exam fees, is one of the most significant calls on school and college budgets, and has been growing in real terms, as has the percentage of budgets that this represents.”

Exam boards face fines for test paper errors

Exam boards face fines for test paper errors

BBC |May 4, 2012

By Judith Burns Education reporter, BBC News

Exam boards face multi-million pound fines for mistakes in test papers under new powers granted to the exams watchdog Ofqual.

Just days before the exam season gets under way, the regulator has given details of new sanctions – including fines of up to 10% of annual turnover.

The regulator can also order exam papers to be rewritten or ban boards from offering certain qualifications.

Fiona Pethick of Ofqual promised to “act firmly and robustly”.

The biggest exam boards have turnovers of up to £300m, so fines of 10% would be substantial.

The government says the money will go to the public purse.

Ms Pethick, Ofqual’s director of regulation said: “We want awarding organisations to provide high-quality qualifications and good levels of service.

“Our additional powers, including the power to fine, mean that when things go wrong, we have more ways in which we can sanction an awarding organisation.

“With exams starting shortly, this is a timely announcement for us as we now have our new powers in place should there be any problems during this important period.”

‘Unanswerable questions’

The move follows a series of unanswerable questions and printing errors in last summer’s A-level and GCSE exam papers, sat by 140,000 students in England Wales and Northern Ireland.

After about a dozen mistakes were found in national test papers, the government promised to have new regulatory powers, including a system of fines, ready for this summer’s exams.

Last summer’s mistakes included multiple-choice questions where all the answers were wrong, and questions which were impossible to answer because wrong information had been given.

The subjects affected were geography, maths, chemistry, biology, business studies and Latin.

Pupils vented their anger on social networking sites, with some calling for the exams to be re-staged.

At the time the exam boards apologised for the mistakes and said they were taking measures to ensure pupils would not be advantaged or disadvantaged by them.

Exams watchdog plans A-level reforms to curb persistent grade inflation

Exams watchdog plans A-level reforms to curb persistent grade inflation

The Guardian World News |by Shiv Malik

Students sitting A-level exams

A-levels faces sweeping reforms to tackle claims that examiners have been giving students ‘the benefit of the doubt’, the exams watchdog warns. Photograph: Alamy

The head of the exams watchdog has signalled wide-ranging reforms to A-levels to tackle claims that examiners have been giving students “the benefit of the doubt”, leading to persistent grade inflation.

Glenys Stacey, chief executive of Ofqual, said the body would consult over the summer on proposals to scrap the modular AS structure, to make certain core subjects compulsory for all under-18s, and to introduce multiple choice questions to ensure students were being tested more widely on their knowledge.

In an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, Stacey blamed examiners for year-on-year grade inflation, which she said was“impossible to justify”.

“If you look at the history, we have seen persistent grade inflation for these key qualifications for at least a decade,” she said. “[It] is virtually impossible to justify and it has done more than anything, in my view, to undermine confidence in the value of those qualifications.

“One of the reasons why we see grade inflation, and it is a laudable reason, is that a lot of the time there are very small gains just by giving the benefit of the doubt. But the benefit of the doubt factor has an impact over time. We need to find ways to manage grade inflation.”

The remarks are in stark contrast to those made when she was appointed to the job last year by the education secretary, Michael Gove. In May 2011, she told the Times Higher Education supplement: “I don’t find ‘grade inflation’ to be a very helpful expression. ‘Inflation’ has a negative import, whereas in fact we may be seeing young people being taught well and working hard.”

Stacey told the Sunday Telegraph universities found the modular system flawed and unsatisfactory. “We have found that there is a strong and persistent view from universities that the modular approach to A-levels is not achieving what it needs to, that the parts don’t add up to the whole,” she said.

Stacey added that too much teaching time was being taken up with exam preparation and helping students to resit modules. “There are only so many school hours in a year. When time is spent preparing for modular exams, doing test papers, doing exams, doing resits, where is the time for teaching?

“It is not simply a question of ‘well, let’s propose we get rid of the January exams’, you do need to have regard to the structure of the two-part A-level. The answer may well be different subject by subject.”

Earlier this month, it emerged that Gove had written to Ofqual asking for the Russell group of universities to set A-level questions and “drive the system”. “I am increasingly concerned that current A-levels, though they have much to commend them, fall short of commanding the level of confidence we would want to see,” he wrote.

Exam tip-off row forces ban on face-to-face seminars

Exam tip-off row forces ban on face-to-face seminars

The Guardian World News |by Jeevan Vasagar


The ban follows allegations that examiners were tipping off teachers about the questions their pupils should expect. Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Examiners will be banned from conducting face-to-face seminars with teachers after an investigation by the official regulator found incidents of “serious malpractice”.

The ban, which will come into force in August 2013, follows an inquiry into allegations that examiners were tipping off teachers about the questions their pupils should expect.

The regulator Ofqual, which examined 52 hours of audio recording handed over by the Daily Telegraph, said it did not find widespread misconduct, but “specific incidents” in which information about future exams was revealed. The newspaper sent undercover reporters to 13 seminars run for teachers by exam boards.

Under the new guidelines, face-to-face training will continue to be acceptable for teachers marking controlled assessments –supervised coursework – and for the introduction of new exam specifications. But over the next year exam boards will have to phase out seminars for named qualifications. Over 4,000 exam board seminars took place last year, with fees of up to £200 per delegate.

When the investigation was published last year, Michael Gove, the education secretary, launched a vigorous attack on the exam system. He said that exam boards had “overstepped the mark” and claimed the system was discredited.

Glenys Stacey, the chief executive of Ofqual, said: “The new rules will make sure that schools and teachers have access to the information they need to understand the exams their pupils are taking. However, they should not get privileged information by attending face-to-face events with those who set the questions.

“We know the value of teachers interacting with experts from exam boards, but we have concluded that there are better ways for information to be shared, such as live online events. These methods can easily be made available to all teachers, not just those who can attend meetings.”

Ofqual is also reviewing the role of controlled assessments in GCSEs, after teachers raised concerns about the amount of school time spent doing them. The assessments were brought in to stop parents helping children with coursework and prevent plagiarism using the internet.

Exam boards conducted their own inquiries after the newspaper investigation resulted in questions in a handful of exam papers being changed. One chief examiner was allegedly recorded by the Telegraph as saying: “We’re cheating. We’re telling you the cycle [of the compulsory question]. Probably the regulator will tell us off.”

The papers that were subsequently altered were a GCSE in ICT set by the WJEC exam board, an Edexcel design and technology GCSE, a government and politics paper and two OCR Latin papers.

The Telegraph claimed that teachers were routinely given information about future questions, relevant areas of the syllabus, and specific words or facts to use in answers.

In its report, Ofqual said: “With privileged information –the inside track – there will always be the risk that those taking part could jeopardise qualifications by saying something about what will be in a future exam paper. We know that that has happened in practice, because we have seen the evidence of it.”

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, said: “We are disappointed that Ofqual has not consulted widely, especially with the teaching profession, in its rushed decision to end face-to-face teacher seminars. Naturally, we will continue to work with teachers to ensure that they still have access to, and are supported by, the much valued and appropriate information that we offer.”

Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, owners of Edexcel, said:“We have already taken strong action to ensure that the information shared through events and other channels is always appropriate. Many of our events will be online, and all will be recorded, to enable a high degree of transparency.”

A DfE spokesman said: “It is vital that we restore confidence in our exam system. It is outrageous that privileged information was shared at some exam seminars and we welcome the action Ofqual is taking on this.

“We want all exams in England to stand comparison with, and be as rigorous as, those in the best-performing education jurisdictions.”

Meanwhile, a group of experts has warned that A-level science exams do not contain enough maths questions, and those that are asked are often too easy.

They raised concerns that papers in biology, chemistry and physics were failing to prepare teenagers to study these subjects at university or to work in related areas.

In a new report, SCORE, a group of leading science organisations including the Royal Society, calls for a review of the maths required for each of the three sciences, and new guidelines to regulate the way maths is assessed in these subjects.

A-level sciences ‘lack the maths students need’

A-level sciences ‘lack the maths students need’

BBC |April 26, 2012

By Judith Burns Education reporter, BBC News

A-level science exams do not contain enough maths questions to prepare students to progress to science degrees or related jobs, says a report.

The authors claim that even those that are asked are often too easy.

The report by a group of leading science organisations calls for a new framework to regulate the way maths is assessed within science A-levels.

The government says it wants universities to be more involved in the design and development of A-levels.

The report by Score (Science community representing education) analysed the type, extent and difficulty of the mathematics in the 2010 A-level papers for biology, chemistry and physics.


The authors said the exams failed to assess the full range of maths skills needed for the subjects.

They added that the exams often also failed to meet the requirements for A-level science qualifications set out by the exams regulator Ofqual.

Professor Graham Hutchings, chairman of Score, said: “Our findings are worrying. A significant proportion of the mathematical requirements put in place by the examinations regulator, Ofqual, for each of the sciences were simply not assessed and, if they were, it was often in a very limited way.”

The report also claimed that the Ofqual requirements were themselves inadequate in that they left out areas of mathematics which underpinned the sciences.

For example the requirements for physics and chemistry A-level left out calculus and the requirements for biology A-level ignored the maths needed to convert between different units.

The authors also found a disparity between the different exam boards, with some requiring a greater proportion of maths and more complex calculations than others.

They called for a framework to ensure parity between boards, and a review of the mathematical requirements for each of the sciences at A-level.

Prof Hutchings said professional scientific bodies should play a role in the design of A-levels to ensure they were fit for purpose.

A-level change

A second report into the maths content of six other A-level subjects which depended on maths found even greater variation in mathematical content between boards.

The Nuffield Foundation examined the 2010 A-level papers for business studies, computing, economics, geography, psychology and sociology.

The report concluded that with the exception of computing, the variation in mathematical content was so great that the qualifications did not give universities or employers a meaningful indication of students’ level of mathematical skill or understanding.

The two reports were carried out in response to research last year that suggested two-thirds of science undergraduates did not have the necessary mathematical skills for their course.

A spokesman for Ofqual responded: “We intend to consult in the summer on proposals to change the A-level system. When A-levels are redesigned, universities and other learned bodies will be more involved in deciding the content to make sure they meet their needs.

“Our own research into universities’, employers’ and teachers’views of A-levels also highlighted some concerns about the mathematical content of A-levels, particularly physics.”

Cambridge Assessment, which owns the exam board OCR, said the research confirmed its own work on higher education, and added that it was already working on new qualifications to boost the mathematics skills of A-level science students.

A spokeswoman for the Edexcel exam board said: “We should take on board the expertise of employers whose views are important for building high-quality examinations that meet the demands of the global economy.”

A-level reforms: a good idea, badly presented

A-level reforms: a good idea, badly presented

The Guardian World News

Pass rates at A-level have been boosted by modules and re-takes

Pass rates at A-level have been boosted by modules and re-takes. Photograph: Eye Ubiquitous/Alamy

Michael Gove’s demand that exam boards involve universities in designing A-levels is broadly welcome – not least if it reduces politicians’influence over the curriculum – but the way it was done leaves a bad taste and raises concerns about its effectiveness.

There is a long tradition of politicians trashing something before reforming it, but was it really necessary to be so negative about a qualification students are in the middle of studying? Gove’s comment that A-levels “fall short of commanding the level of confidence” required was unnecessarily sweeping, especially as it is not borne out by evidence.

But then, the way Gove’s letter to Ofqual on the subject was leaked to selected parts of the media meant the decision was made public before anyone had a chance to view the evidence. The leak forced Ofqual to rush out research it had commissioned on what universities, teachers and employers really think. This found that“overall, A-levels were viewed positively” by all three groups and“most higher education sector interviewees were generally content with the knowledge content of A-levels across subjects” – but in the midst of a media panic about A-levels, this research was hardly noticed.

However, let’s not quibble. There is a case for change. The Ofqual study did list a number of skills universities find lacking in some school-leavers: “researching, finding sources, essay-writing and referencing, and the wider skills of problem-solving, analysis and critical thinking”.

But not all A-level students are aiming for university, and do we really want each stage of education to be defined and shaped by the next stage? If this is the case, secondary schools would be shaping the primary school curriculum. Do the views of those teaching a particular age group not count?

While greater involvement of universities is desirable, Gove has made it sound more like a takeover, wanting leading universities to“take ownership” of A-levels. But the current proposals give university staff little incentive for involvement, never mind ownership.

In the current climate, academics’ promotion prospects –and the financial health of their departments – depend primarily on the amount and quality of their published research. Teaching undergraduates comes second. That leaves involvement in A-level design trailing a distant third.

Time, money and reputation are all potential incentives for academics to get involved in shaping A-levels. But will vice-chancellors, now keenly aware of their fee-paying undergraduates as “consumers”, offer time off, financial rewards and career enhancement to encourage staff to neglect research and teaching in order to serve a more nebulous wider public interest? As a spokeswoman for the Russell Group of universities cautioned:“We don’t actually have much time and resource spare to spend a lot of time in reforming A-levels.”

Or is the government expecting exam boards to pay academics for this work? That would mean costs being passed on to schools in the form of higher exam fees. That wasn’t mentioned. Or will the government pay? If so, has Mr Gove cleared this with the Chancellor?

But my biggest concern is more fundamental. The reason universities find some students lacking in key skills such as independent research is that the league table culture has encouraged some schools to focus on just getting students through exams instead of a broader preparation for higher levels of study.

I don’t believe the content of A-levels is significantly easier than in the past. It is the use of bite-sized modules, repeat re-takes and a relentless focus only on what will be in the exam that has boosted pass-rates.

And the introduction of AS-levels has also meant that the first year of sixth-form studies has become more exam-orientated instead of allowing a year for students to breathe, in which they could develop broader and more advanced study skills.

All these reforms have had the unintended effect of narrowing A-level learning. So, yes, involve universities in A-level design, but the really significant reform must involve taking the high-stakes element out of league tables and returning sixth-form studies to a broad learning experience and not a narrow race for grades.

Are The Proposed Changes To A’ Levels A Good Thing?

Michael Gove Calls On Watchdog To Let Universities Set A-Level Examinations

The quality of A ‘Level qualifications has been brought into question again this week after revelations on 2nd April 2012 that Michael Gove the Education Secretary had written to the exams watchdog, Ofqual. In his letter he highlighted his concerns, expressed a need for changes to A ‘Level courses and asked for universities to be allowed to:

“drive the system”.

These proposals will have serious implications for the future of A’ Levels because the Russell Group of top universities will decide both the course content and the exam questions.  The aim of the DfE is to start the new A’ Levels from 2014 with the students sitting their exams in 2016. The changes would apply to Maths, English and Science in England initially and then be extended to other subjects and rolled out across the rest of the UK.  Michael Gove is determined that universities be genuinely committed to the process and have ownership of the exams.  In his letter Mr. Gove wrote:

“I am increasingly concerned that current A-levels, though they have much to commend them, fall short of commanding the level of confidence we would want to see,” ……..“I do not envisage the Department for Education having a role in the development of A-level qualifications. It is more important that universities are satisfied that A-levels enable young people to start their degrees having gained the right knowledge and skills than that ministers are able to influence content or methods of assessment.”

The concerns expressed in his letter coincide with a recent poll of university lecturers carried out by Cambridge University’s exam board, Cambridge Assessment. Just over half of the 633 academics surveyed believe that:

students did not possess the writing or critical thinking skills needed for their degree courses.

Another recent article on the subject suggests that academics and teachers are broadly in agreement with the need to return to more traditional A’ Levels.  The findings contained in an Ofqual report into A ‘Levels states that:

Despite an increase in A-level grade, and higher numbers gaining first-class degrees, universities were not reporting “a comparative increase in the abilities of first-year undergraduates”,…..


The report also suggests that teachers would welcome a more linear approach to A’ Levels, although not necessarily a full two year linear model, and a move away from modular style assessment.

Are The Proposed Changes To A’ Levels A Good Thing?

At Kip McGrath Education Centre Scunthorpe our students are primarily under-graduates and we are happy to accept that universities’ concerns regarding the preparedness of their first-year students are valid. They are after all, the ones who are witnessing the events on the ground as it were. It is right therefore, that some changes to A ‘Levels should be made if under-graduates are not being sufficiently prepared for degree level studies. We do however, have a number of concerns regarding what has been reported in the media recently.

Firstly, we do not believe that a complete removal of all modular assessments would be a positive step. Based upon discussions with colleagues in the teaching profession our conclusion is that there is a place for both modular and linear courses. In our experience there is a tendency for students to coast during the first year of their A’ Levels if the subject does not involve coursework. We would therefore, recommend that the bodies implementing the changes consider retaining modular assessments in those courses in order to encourage students and maintain their study motivation levels.

Our second area of concern is the apparent over emphasis on making A’ Levels more suitable for degree course preparation. A Guardian article from July 2011 highlighted that just 39% of that year’s A ‘Level students were aiming to attend university. Approximately 47% of those polled were intending to enter the workplace whilst a small percentage of students were unsure of their intentions. These figures would suggest that employers have a greater claim to being allowed to “drive the system” than universities. This argument is lent even greater weight when one considers that the driving force will not be universities as a whole but the top twenty selective universities which include Oxford and Cambridge. Given that there is a disproportionate entry rate to these universities from selective schools and that they are attended by such a small minority of students overall there is a real danger that many A’ Level students whilst being prepared for an Oxbridge degree will be insufficiently ready for the workplace. As these proposals stand they would be detrimental to both the students concerned and the wider economy.

There are some positive measures outlined within the proposals with which we are in agreement. The main one being an end to the so called “resit culture”. According the news report:

Teachers told researchers that a “resit culture” had been damaging because students approached exams knowing they will always get a second chance at it. Consequently, many academics said first-year university students struggled because they were not able to retake an exam  to boost their grade.


We would concur with this viewpoint as it will encourage students to focus on the exam in front of them with greater determination. It will also remove the pressure that many students currently experience whereby they find themselves working towards several re-sits at the same time as studying the next module and preparing for the first attempt at a new exam.  It may therefore, be advisable to look at the feasibility of putting students in for any required modular resits at the end of a course. This would enable them to concentrate more effectively on the rest of the course and increase their chances of passing at the second attempt when they do resit.



Whilst we agree that many students are being left ill-prepared for their degree studies this should not be the primary focus of or driving force behind the changes. When A ‘Levels were introduced in the 1950s their main purpose was for equipping students for higher education. That is no longer the case and this fact was recognised in the Tomlinson Report into A ‘Levels as far back as 2002:

Ever since their introduction, A levels have been associated with entry

to higher education. This remains a valid and useful application. But over

time they have also acquired a broader significance as a precursor to

employment and as one strand in a qualifications framework which is

designed to recognise the full range of advanced achievement of which young

people are capable, ranging from the purely academic and theoretical learning

through to the skills and knowledge associated with specific jobs. This trend

is embodied in the Curriculum 2000 reforms which increased the flexibility of,

and broadened the range of subjects and types of learning within, the A level

strand, for instance by establishing A levels in vocational subjects.

We are concerned therefore, that the education secretary appears to be ignoring employers in his proposals and that his motivation appears to be based on a desire to meet the needs of a small group of elite universities and schools rather than the requirements of the majority of students and wider society for the 21st Century. Any genuinely positive efforts to raise educational standards are always to be welcomed but they must be for the majority and not the minority and, as we have emphasised before, based upon empirical evidence rather than political ideology.


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