announcement by Michael Gove that the government is planning to reform A-Levels in England will be broadly welcomed. Many syllabuses and exams are completely inadequate. They do not provide the preparation for university that the brightest students deserve, and are justifiably criticised by employers for lack of rigour.
It’s also right for the government to look to top universities to shape new qualifications. But there are reasons for concern. Gove’s reforms are inspired by a faith that government can set a single framework that will deliver for all. While qualifications should be more stringent, reform should also be realistic.
In September last year, policymakers framed a consultation on GCSE reform. The most important features – that all should sit a single exam, that there should be a single qualification for each subject, and that awarding powers should be bestowed on a franchise basis – have been criticised for overthrowing the very objective they set out to achieve.
In attempting to give better opportunities for all, creating uniform exams is somewhat counterproductive. It ignores the fact that educational opportunity is largely specific to individual aptitude. Students need different opportunities, which means diverse qualifications across a wide range of subjects.
In the government’s proposals for reforming A-Levels, we see signs of the same self-defeating centralist approach. We’re told that our top universities are to have a shaping influence over content and format, and yet the government has already decided against modular assessment.
Evidence shows that modular exams have a motivational effect for goal-oriented learners (often boys), focusing minds from the outset. They also ensure that those who do not achieve pass-level competency first time are forced go back and learn it again.
And though the linear approach is preferred by Russell Group universities (those taking the lead in advising on the rigour of exam boards’ proposals), many other high-quality universities still structure their courses along modular lines. How will this one-size-fits-all approach to reform serve students preparing for entry to non-Russell Group universities, or to overseas (notably US) institutions, where modular learning is the norm? And if the modular approach is inferior, why has it served so well (and for so long) in exams regulating entry to the professions?
Clearly the intention is for the A-Level to perform its traditional sorting function more effectively. But the government can’t provide adequate challenges to the most able, while offering equal opportunity through access to the same qualifications, to all students at the same time. Gove would do better to leave the A-Level alone, open up the market so that students are offered a wider range of qualifications, and challenge Russell Group universities to commission the boards directly or – better still – to design qualifications for themselves.
James Croft is director of the Centre for Market Reform of Education and a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs.