Should A-level curricula be decided by university lecturers?

Volunteer Journalist Sakib

Education secretary Michael Gove recently wrote a letter to Ofqual (the committee that regulates exams) claiming that students are “woefully underprepared for university”. His plan to remedy this is to hand control over the content of A-levels to lecturers from Russell group universities. It’s safe to assume that this will make exams more difficult.Unlike Michael Gove, I go to an inner city state school. Many of my friends find it challenging to cope with the large gap in difficulty between GCSEs and A-levels. So students who are barely coping with the jump will have to deal with harder work and students coping fairly well will begin to struggle. Together they obviously make up the majority of students. Surely we should be helping them succeed rather than making their life more difficult.

Gove has one piece of evidence. A poll carried out by Cambridge Assessment where three fifths of universities said they have catch-up classes for first year undergraduates. The main thing freshers seem to struggle with is ‘writing or critical thinking skills’. But there is no evidence saying the standards of exams are to blame. Perhaps the standard of teaching is at fault. Or the lack of resources that schools have thanks to budget cuts. In my experience, the style of teaching goes hand in hand with how well I learn. Teacher’s choice to spoon-feed students could be the reason for the lack of ‘critical thinking skills’.  As a student interested in science, practical lessons are essential in helping students understand the subject. In my school there has been a severe drop to the number of these lessons and I asked my teacher why that is. I was told it’s because of budget cuts.

An obvious shortcoming of this plan is that it assumes that everyone taking A-levels wants to go to university and is unfair to those who are not. I have a friend taking A-levels as a useful background in his career in plumbing. Gearing A-levels only for university will mean other pathways to higher education may not value them as much. Where are the checks and balances to ensure that all purpose A-levels set by academics is what the plumbing industry is looking for? Either we separate the students going to university from the ones who don’t want to (which is a bad idea) or make A-levels for everyone.

The only way to make sense of his plan is if he feels that A-levels should only be those going to university. He hasn’t taken heed what teachers or students say about his plan. Teachers are worried they’ll end up with less flexibility since they won’t have different exam boards to choose from. He hasn’t considered the effect this will have on students who don’t want to go to university. He hasn’t thought about the majority of students who are barely keeping up with the A-level workload. Making exams harder is not a bad idea per se, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it deals with the real problem with education today. There wasn’t enough money in the system before the school funding cuts, and so A-level teaching standards are increasingly strained.

*All views expressed in this article are the author’s. IARS accepts no responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any views expressed in these articles and will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information or any losses or damages arising from its display or use.

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8 Comments

  1. Interesting and well written article. Thanks. I read some recent evidence that A levels (I think) contained more multiple choice and short answer questions and that it is fairly reasonable to infer that this makes the exams easier.
    I disagree that A-levels should be an exam that suits everyone. A wannabee-plumber who finds A-levels too taxing can take a number of other courses that are both more vocational (B-techs, diplomas, etc) while students who do want to to take the next academic step up (which is c. 50% of the population). need A-levels to stretch them so they can handle a degree.
    Interestingly (or not, I’ll let you judge) I went to school about 20 years ago and then onto university and I distinctly remember being told that standards had slipped and we were being too spoon-fed the information.

    Reply
  2. Thanks! Actually it doesn’t necessarily mean that. In America the majority of exams are multiple choice and in my opinion, the American entrance exams (all multiple choice/short answer) to university are harder than A levels. It all depends on what type of question it is; simple recall q’s are generally easy but those which require application of knowledge are difficult – and they don’t have to be long answered questions. I base that on the fact that I’m sitting both the American exams and A levels in the next two weeks.

    I think it would be better to just have a harder but all-purpose A level exam. Having a number of other easier degrees makes things more complicated and ends up with some degrees being wrongly undervalued. So what if the wannabee plumber finds A levels too hard? Lets say he gets C in an A level rather than a B in an easier exam/degree, do they not mean the same thing? Employers/universities base their decisions on how well applicants have done relative to other applicants (from what I understand at least). Plus, the below average + average students can get a taste of more difficult (which often is more interesting) content.

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  3. This is an excellent, insightful, and thought-provoking article. Well done, Sakib!

    I am writing as a 42 year old, so my views may well be out of tune with the youth of today. I accept that, but I think my argument still deserves a hearing.

    I am going to side with Michael Gove on this one. As the first person who commented on the article said, A Level are designed for students who are aiming to go on to University. A Levels should therefore be hard, stretching and challenging. A Levels should prepare students adequately for University and Universities should not have to spend the first year running “catch-up” courses. I am vehemently opposed to Universities having to dumb down their standards. We have some of the best Universities in the world and I want it to stay that way. A Levels should prepare students for the challenge of a University course, and should equip them with the right skills, especially critical thinking and writing, so that they turn up at University intellectually prepared for the challenge of undertaking a first degree.

    As far as ensuring A Level students are prepared for University, it is not just about resources; in fact I would argue resources are not the issue. In my view it is all about the quality of the teaching. Teachers maketh the pupil. And, in my view, teachers should not be spoon feeding their students; they should be empowering students to think for themselves and to use their own brain. That is what students are required to do at University, and that is what teachers of A Levels students should be helping and supporting their students to do – to think for themselves, and then to be able to express themselves confidently verbally and on paper.

    I know many people will disagree with me, but that is my view. We need to ensure that we have teachers who are the right quality, and who deliver for their students. Teachers really do maketh the pupil.

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    • Thank you! Of course, anybody’s opinion is worth hearing!

      I completely agree, A levels do need to be more vigorous as to prepare university hopefuls better. That is why I said making A levels harder isn’t a bad idea. But why can’t we make it harder and simultaneously make it for everyone? I read about ‘catch-up classes’ in the guardian some time ago, and I don’t know too much about it but I think that only a few universities run these. I asked my brother (3rd year at university) and he’s never heard of such classes. So it could be the case that the media just cherry picked some examples to highlight their point (nothing new). Besides, I highly doubt the standards of universities will drop because of this – I read science articles daily and the majority of studies and reports come from Oxbridge and other prestigious institutes. Then again, I’m still 17 and may not be looking at the whole picture, and this is looking at only one subject.

      We are also forgetting that the effect of Gove’s plan will marginalise students not going to university and will reinforce the stigma attached with vocational courses – which is definitely wrong. Okay, so there will be a set of exams just for University students, but Gove hasn’t dealt with the rest of the students. What of them?

      That is definitely true, though I didn’t expand on this in my article. My school in particular has, in my opinion, unbelievably terrible teaching standards. And I think that’s is probably why the school is doing so poorly. Not only are we spoon-fed everything, we are encouraged to just memorise facts and not to question what we learn. I find my teachers simply read from the text book and set us some simple questions and that’s it, lesson over. We rarely have discussions or are told of any applications of what we learn – unlike in America where this was a common form of teaching. Unsurprisingly, my class in America is doing a lot better than my current class.

      Reply
  4. Sakib

    I agree that vocational courses should not be looked down upon and should be more highly valued than they are at present. We are very short of skilled tradesmen in this country and we need them!

    “Not only are we spoon-fed everything, we are encouraged to just memorise facts and not to question what we learn. I find my teachers simply read from the text book and set us some simple questions and that’s it, lesson over.”
    I find this appalling and shocking. I don’t think teachers like this are fit to teach in our schools. Teachers should be empowering pupils to question, to challenge, to use their brain and to think for themselves. That is what education is all about. Teachers are not there just to get through the curriculum; they are there to nurture and nourish young minds. If they cannot do that, or can’t be bothered, they should not be teachers.

    I really hope that your teachers are not representative of teachers generally in secondary schools in the UK. If they are, there is no hope for our youth!

    Reply
    • I absolutely agree. I honestly sit here wondering how on Earth those teachers are still employed. I’d say about 90% of all the teachers I know in my school don’t know anything beyond the curricula so it’s difficult for them to answer questions that may require some understanding or outside knowledge. And at least 3 of my teachers frequently make mistakes in what they teach. I hope they aren’t representative too! Remember this is just one school. But I imagine that other teachers aren’t too much different – just not as bad as the ones I have. A lot of my friends all have the same attitude of learning: memorise, memorise, practice questions. To me that suggests poor teaching.

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  5. I really enjoyed reading this article, Sakib. Although I live in the United States, I think that the A level classes that you described should be challenging for those who plan to go into university. Unfortunately, here in the U.S., there are a lot of excellent schools and also a lot of terrible ones. There are so many schools who are trying to increase their statistics, like the graduation rate, or passing rate, that teachers spoon feed the students information just for them to pass. With all that spoon fed information, those who continue to university don’t do as well – and here we do not have the catching up classes – or they just do not go at all. Students who attended great schools continue on to great universities because of the quality education they received. I wouldn’t mind harder tests here, maybe they could give some slacker kids a wake up call.

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  6. “Teachers spoon feed the students information just for them to pass. With all that spoon fed information, those who continue to university don’t do as well”.
    “Students who attended great schools continue on to great universities because of the quality education they received.”

    I agree with both of these statements 100%.
    Students need less spoon-feeding and more high quality teachers.

    Reply

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