3 Apr 2012

Are Michael Gove’s A-level plans as new as they seem?

Channel 4 News reveals how Michael Gove’s plans for Russell Group universities to have more input into A-levels is not such a new idea.

Michael Gove wants universities to take more responsibility for setting A-level papers (Reuters)

Michael Gove’s plans to conduct the latest overhaul of A-levels and encourage greater involvement of England’s top universities in setting A-level exams are aimed at smoothing out school pupils’ transition into university students. The education secretary wants to see youngsters more prepared for life at university than they are currently, he says, and involving the Russell Group of elite universities will help make that happen.

But in the not too distant past, universities did have much more involvement.

Central government’s drive to make qualifications more standardised, a process begun under the last Conservative government with then Education Secretary Keith Baker, continued throughout the 1990s.

As Mark Dawe, the chief executive of one England’s three remaining exam boards, or ‘awarding bodies’ as they are now known, has said: “Over the past two decades, the design and content of qualifications has increasingly become the domain of government-funded bodies.”

Dr Tina Isaacs, former head of regulation for 14-19 year olds at the exam regulator Ofqual, told Channel 4 News that such regulation has its merits. “Several generations ago, there was a much more explicit link between universities and qualifications. “GCE A and O-levels were set by examining boards, for example, JMB, MEG, NEAB, ULEAC and UCLES, and many more, which were affiliated with universities, which as time went on, were merged into the three English awarding bodies we have now – AQA, EdExcel and OCR.”

And she says subsequent government oversight of qualifications has been beneficial. “There’s a very good reason for regulation. It has brought about a maintenance of standards and kids sitting exams are no longer faced with potential ‘surprises’ – they know broadly upon which topics they will be examined but it does leave less room for creativity.”

Oxford, Cambridge, London and Durham universities also responded to the demands of schools by providing syllabuses and examinations that candidates could take. Kathleen Tattersall

Dr Isaacs says that in the past, up to a point, some examining boards attracted students from independent schools who were more likely to take qualifications from boards associated with Oxford and Cambridge.

Anecdotally, some older readers may remember their schools choosing a certain exam board as it would be viewed more favourably by university admissions tutors. Standardisation has all but ironed out this quirk.

As Tina Isaacs says: “The introduction of subject and qualifications criteria, essentially the rules that all qualifications need to follow, led to tighter central control through government-sponsored regulation.

“By the mid 1990s examining boards had morphed into far fewer awarding bodies, with more standardarisation and government control. The idea was to ensure that, say, if someone takes an A-level in Peterborough, it would be understood to have the same value as one taken by a student in London.”


If you were curious enough to delve even further into the past, you would find that in the mid-19th century, grant-aided and public schools had already begun to seek out guidance from universities such as Oxford, London and Cambridge for help with standards so that they could help their pupils prepare for university or professional life.

As former chief regulator and head of Ofqual, Kathleen Tattersall, describes it: “Oxford, Cambridge, London and Durham also responded to the demands of schools by providing syllabuses and examinations that candidates could take locally in their own schools.

“The requirements were specific to the needs of particular universities and were part of the hotchpotch of examinations which characterised the period; a far cry from today’s national, closely regulated examination system, which measures individual and institutional achievement and is central to national accountability.”

Dr Isaacs, now programme leader for the MA in educational assessment at the Institute of Education in London, does not think the secretary of state’s current plans will see a return to this era however. “I don’t think we’ll see a burgeoning of lots of universities setting separate A-levels. It’s not clear how the mechanics for A-level development will work and we’ll have to wait and see what mechanisms are put in place to ensure basic comparability of standards between different awarding bodies’ qualifications.

“I’m hopeful that not all regulation will disappear but I’d like to see room for innovation. I think that the current three English awarding bodies will continue to be the organisations that offer A-levels.

“Awarding body A-level development committees have always included representatives from universities, but I think this change will mean they have a larger presence and more clout.”