‘A’ levels are to get tougher and their content is to be approved by leading universities. So says Michael Gove. There is much to be commended in a drive to raise academic standards and give students the skills and knowledge needed to access demanding universities and successfully compete in the jobs market. Some ‘A’ level courses are in need of reform, and some ‘A’ level subjects are of such dubious value that they are discounted by selecting universities.
However, Mr Gove should moderate his reforming zeal. All is not wrong with the current system. The much maligned modularity of ‘A’ levels ensures students are constantly working. Gone are the days when pupils could drift through the Lower Sixth knowing public exams were a year away. Now many sixth formers face exams at six monthly intervals; student noses are kept firmly to the ‘educational grindstone’ and pupils are working harder than ever before. Grade inflation is the genuine product of increased student application.
Good exams are set by excellent teachers who are familiar with the curriculum, the capabilities of pupils, and the assessment process. Accurate examining is a skilled business and one the United Kingdom excels in. Exam Boards are major ‘export earners’ and British exams are sat the world over. There is a role for universities in the process, but higher education lacks the expertise in secondary schooling and mass assessment to dictate the process.
Mr Gove should also remember that education is a ‘bottom up’ process. It is logical to begin reforms with the youngest age groups and work up from there. This ensures that students receive a continuity of education. By starting at the ‘A’ level top and working down, there is a danger that students completing unreformed GCSEs will lack the skills and knowledge needed to tackle reformed and harder ‘A’ levels. The result could be increased student dropout rates and wasted talent. This must be avoided at all costs.