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.
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