Published on 3 Apr 2012 Sections

Universities to help set A-level exams

The education secretary wants universities to have a “far greater” role in setting A-level courses, amid concerns that current exams are not preparing pupils for further study.

In a letter to the exams regulator Ofqual, Mr Gove said that he did not envisage the Department of Education playing a role in developing the A-levels of the future.

Under the current system, the Department of Education sets out the core knowledge and structure of A-level courses, and exam boards design exam papers and coursework to fit around this content.

Mr Gove wants universities to set the core content of A-level exams, and hopes that the first new courses will be available for teaching in September 2014. The UK’s 24 most academic universities, known as the Russell Group, will be involved in setting exams questions and subject content.

The change is designed to improve standards and prepare pupils for the move to university standard education, and will affect English exam boards.

In his letter to Glenys Stacey, chair of Ofqual, the education secretary said that exam boards should work with universities to develop 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,” wrote Mr Gove.

“I am particularly keen that universities should be able to determine subject content, and that they should endorse specifications, including details of how the subject should be assessed.”

Improve standards

According to a study by Cambridge Assessment. a department of the University of Cambridge, the practice of “teaching to the test” in schools – or drilling pupils to pass exams – is a “major factor” in pupils being unprepared for studying at degree level.

The study found that students have difficulty with structuring essays, spelling, punctuation and grammar, referencing and citing sources, building arguments, conducting research, and evaluating information.

The 18-month research programme, which included a survey of 633 higher education lecturers and roadshows, found that more than half of lecturers think that undergraduates are unprepared for degree-level study.

Universities provide extra support

Around 60 per cent of respondents said that their universities provide extra support classes for under-prepared first-year students, usually focusing on writing and independent learning.

Nearly three quarters of those surveyed said that they changed their teaching styles for students who are not ready for university study.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, which is part of Cambridge Assessment, said: “Over the past two decades, the design and content of qualifications has increasingly become the domain of government-funded bodies.

“One effect of this has been to disenfranchise university lecturers, tutors, and admissions staff. Recognising the need to strengthen links with universities and other HE institutions, the research programme is one of the ways we are increasing HE’s role in the design, development and evaluation of A-levels and other qualifications.”

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