The administration of examinations for 15-19 year olds in England - Education Committee Contents

6  Forthcoming A level reform

Involvement of universities in A levels

120. The Government has announced that universities should have a "leading role" in the design of A levels. The Secretary of State envisages that "universities should be able to determine subject content, and that they should endorse specifications, including details of how the subject should be assessed".[191] These changes will take effect for courses starting in September 2014.

121. Historically universities were involved in the development and content of A levels and the "ancestors of the current awarding bodies were linked to universities".[192] These days, as examiner Andrew Hunt noted, "the links to universities are now very much reduced".[193] Rather telling was the observation by Edexcel examiner Graham George that "as far as I know, none of the current Principal Examiners in Physics works in a university, compared with a significant majority 25 years ago".[194]

122. Cambridge Assessment has suggested that "the State's greater role in defining the content of syllabuses and the way in which they are examined has led to a kind of divorce between the users and producers of qualifications".[195] Researchers acknowledge that "occasional consultation [with HE] exists through exam boards and Ofqual—it is not working".[196]Ana Gutierrez of Bournemouth University told us that "it is a pity that [...] we do not have any opportunity to be part of the design of qualifications".[197] Recent studies by Ofqual and Cambridge Assessment both suggested that universities should have greater input into the design and content of A levels.[198]

123. The fact that a high proportion of those studying A levels go on to higher education lends further weight to the argument that universities should have a greater influence over what young people study at A level. Research suggests that 84% of young people achieving 2 or more A levels go on to higher education before the age of 20.[199] The proportion of high achieving A level students (obtaining grade profiles of AAB or above) who go on to higher education is even higher, at over 90%.[200]

124. There is plenty of evidence to support the Government in seeking to increase the involvement of universities in the design and content of A levels. However, as Glenys Stacey pointed out to us, "the practicalities of that are all in the detail" and "there is a danger in listening to a small cadre of voices in higher education; we need to look at it in the round".[201] Ofqual has also emphasized that the full commitment of and support from universities is essential for the new arrangements to work. Indeed the success of the proposals depends upon the capacity and willingness of universities to play a major role. Universities UK has said "this involvement would have clear implications for universities in terms of resources and admissions".[202] We were struck by the finding of Ofqual's research that:

many HEI interviewees said that they would not have the time to set aside for such activities on top of their academic roles. On several occasions these interviewees suggested that Learned Bodies were best placed to provide the higher education sector view because they knew more about A levels than individual academics.[203]

125. Witnesses from higher education expressed concerns to us about securing consensus from universities, given the diversity of views across the sector. Professor Graham Hutchings, Chair of SCORE and Pro-Vice Chancellor at Cardiff University told us "there are at least four groupings. They all have their separate secretariats. Do they speak with one view? No, they do not. Whom you would go to is very difficult".[204] Professor Sir John Holman of the University of York and Senior Fellow for Education at the Wellcome Trust warned that "any kind of system where you try to have a collection of university heads of departments sitting down together and working out A levels would not work, but if you take a body like the Institute of Physics, for example, it has strong links to universities and employers and very good education expertise".[205]

126. It was also pointed out to us that performance measures operating in higher education do not incentivise involvement with A levels. Professor Jo-Anne Baird et al cautioned that "systems of accountability in higher education are now a disincentive to academics being involved with examining at secondary level, as this would not contribute to the indicators upon which individuals and institutions are measured in HE".[206]

127. Press coverage would suggest that some in higher education have concerns about the Government's proposals, the speed of their introduction and the prospect of two-tier A levels, as well as a lack of consultation so far. There is a perception that the proposals are overly focused on Russell Group universities.[207] We can see that it is important to take into account views across the university sector, as universities' requirements of A levels may vary. We think that there is a strong case for increasing the involvement of learned bodies in the design of A levels, as suggested by Ofqual's research, and that this may offer a solution to the limited resource available within higher education. These learned bodies have strong links to universities and employers, as well as very good education expertise. We note, however, that syllabus development requires a blend of subject and assessment expertise, with the latter residing mostly in exam boards. It is therefore essential that exam boards retain ultimate control of question paper and examination design, working with universities and learned bodies on matters of content, and subject to rigorous accreditation by Ofqual.

128. We recommend that the Government and Ofqual seek to increase the involvement of learned bodies as well as universities in the content of A levels, while allowing exam boards to retain control of question papers and examination design to ensure best assessment practice. The Government and Ofqual must also ensure that the whole of the university sector is consulted on the proposed A level reforms, as well as schools, colleges, learned bodies and employers.

National subject committees

129. Part of the role envisaged by the Government for higher education in A level reform could well be undertaken by the national subject committees we recommended in chapter five. National subject committees may also help address the issue of limited capacity in higher education to devote to A level changes, as raised in Ofqual's recent report. Ofqual's research suggested that:

the optimal outcome might be for Ofqual (and other regulators) to convene and coordinate the involvement of a representative group of HEIs and other stakeholders in offering substantive input at the criteria stage, and then involve these same people at the review and accreditation stage when it receives specifications from Awarding Organisations. Then the Awarding Organisations would be free to involve other HEIs and stakeholders, not involved in these representative groups, in their own specification designs.[208]

130. This fits very well with the role we envisage for national subject committees, convened by Ofqual, in terms of their role in syllabus development and accreditation. We recommend that Ofqual involve national subject committees in the development of criteria for and accreditation of new A levels.

191   Letter from Michael Gove to Glenys Stacey, 30 March 2012 Back

192   Ev 113 Back

193   Ev w3 Back

194   Ev w196, paragraph 3.7 Back

195   A better approach to Higher Education/Exam Board interaction for post-16 qualifications, A policy paper, Cambridge Assessment, June 2011  Back

196   Ibid. Back

197   Q120 Back

198   Fit for Purpose? The view of the higher education sector, teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels, Ofqual, 2012 and Back

199   Phil Vickers and Bahram Bekhradnia, Vocational A levels and university entry Is there Parity of Esteem?, Higher Education Policy Institute,  Back

200   Teaching funding and student number controls, Consultation on changes to be implemented in 2012-13, Higher Education Funding Council for England, 2011 Back

201   Q310 Back

202   Universities UK response to proposals to give universities a larger role in the development of A levels, 3 April 2012  Back

203   Fit for Purpose? The view of the higher education sector, teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels, Ofqual, 2012, p12 Back

204   Q433 Back

205   Q433 Back

206   Ev 181, paragraph 7.5 Back

207   Interview with Pam Tatlow of Million+ on BBC News, 3 April 2012, "Exam regulator's research backs case for A level reform", The Independent, 4 April 2012, "All A levels are equal - but some will be more equal", The Times Educational Supplement, 6 April 2012  Back

208   Fit for purpose? The view of the higher education sector, teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels, Ofqual, 2012, p12 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2012
Prepared 3 July 2012