A Levels and the Gove Threat

Trevor Fisher writes:

The threat of revolution in academic school exams.

 A Level reform – turning back to traditional exams controlled by elite universities – has long been part of Gove’s plan. But his actual proposals, in a letter to OFQUAL on March 31st – go beyond the EBac agenda he has imposed at GCSE Level. EBac is a bundle of existing GCSE and while there is a common agenda for GCSE and A Level, there is a drive to chaos within Gove’s A Level agenda.

 This was clear once Gove threatened to revolutionise a “discredited” exam system in the Times of June 18th 2011. The exam system is not discredited. This is reactionary Tory dogma. Worryingly the proposals driven by Gove not only threaten A Level but also the independence of OFQUAL, particularly with the board now dominated by Gove nominees.

 The imminence of the consultation on A Level due June must take priority. There is a strong case for taking GCSE and A Level together as a policy area. However June is only just round the corner and A Level will require an immediate response.

 Reform Yes, Revolution No

An important contribution to the discussion is Mike Baker’s article in the Guardian of 17th April. He rightly accepted there is a need for reform, without accepting the apocalyptic Gove vision. Indeed, he noted the OFQUAL report, rushed out on April 3 broadly indicated that universities like A Level, but there are problems which need to be addressed. However he correctly wondered (a|) if universities can design A Levels as happened 30 years ago given the academic league table pressures to produce research and teaching. Exam design could be a bridge too far. He also correctly asked who would pay. Presumably exam boards (who would pass the costs on to schools in exam fees).  

The view from the top

Indeed, Gove has dived in following the front page article in the Times last June without consultation. No one knows if the universities are able to deliver. Increasingly undergraduate teaching is done by PhD students in the elite universities, so where is the skill base? Possibly retired academics could be drafted in, but he gives no sign of thinking through practicalities. His letter, written largely in the first person, assumes that the drivers would be Russell Group universities – he sees no others – and that there would be no comparability between A Levels because he wants “a welcome diversity between our best universities”. Competition in other words, based on different exams.

What is the view of David Willetts on all this?

The head of OFQUAL welcomed university involvement as all commentators have done. However she calls for “significant” numbers of elite universities to sign up – welcome but not sufficient.  A Level has to be a tariff, and accepted by all end users, and as she notes, the issue of teaching must be addressed. Teachers must know the system is workable. Testing of options must be carried out.

The tyranny of 2014

Alas OFQUAL, which is under intense pressure, has accepted that some new exams could be ready by September 2014. It is not acceptable to have some exams available, new and old competing, while other subject areas are lagging behind. While Gove has stopped – just – from ordering his new prescription, OFQUAL is not as independent as it should be. September 2014 (29 months away: and the consultation has not yet started!) has a political significance. With the law saying an election must happen in May 2015, Gove needs to have a political scalp to wave in the air. The exam system must not become a political trophy. No new system can be devised in 29 months, and the first step is to campaign against a cherry picked and politically motivated date of September 2014.

Otherwise we will see A Level descending into chaos, as competing universities try to play the market and small providers, with inadequate resources, compete for market share while students and teachers have little or no idea what the best options are to get into the market for expensive and increasingly randomised university places. The best funded schools at the top end of the independent sector will get the glittering prizes – already a mere 5 institutions take 30% of Oxbridge places. For the hard right the prize is a totally stratified admissions system for HE. For Gove’s critics, the opposite has to be the aim. Above all, OFQUAL’s independence from short term political pressures has to be defended.

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