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Ofqual seeks A-list university guidance on A Level content

19 June 2012

In my last newsletter, I reported education secretary Michael Gove's plans to restore rigour in the teaching of English, maths and science at primary school - also championed by Pearson UK president Rod Bristow, who called for a sharper focus on primary stage literacy and numeracy in the latest CBI/Pearson Education & Skills survey.

A week later and education is still in the news, with Ofqual's latest bid to move its consultation forward on A Level reform in England, hitting the headlines once more.

Last week the regulator launched a consultation on the structure and assessment arrangements of A Levels, and outlined plans for universities to determine their content – a long term goal of the present government. In addition, Ofqual wants to gauge opinion on whether or not January exams should be abolished, AS Levels should be continued and examination re-sits limited in number.

Chief regulator, Glenys Stacey admits that the research has highlighted areas ripe for improvement, and calls upon schools, colleges and employers, as well as universities, to let her know what they think of Ofqual's latest proposals (you can take part here, where the consultation remains open until September 11).

The CBI's employment and skills director, Neil Carberry says that while A-levels were originally developed by universities, they now serve a broader purpose in post-16 education, especially as an entry for young people to higher apprenticeships and ‘learn while you earn’ routes. He wants to see a more challenging A Level curriculum, however, to ensure that young people are not just better prepared for university, but also well-equipped for work, citing "analytical thinking, problem solving and self-management" as essential skills to be learned at school.

Wendy Piatt, director-general of the Russell Group, which represents the UK's top 20 universities, is clearly delighted that universities’ concerns about A-levels are now likely to be addressed. “While A-Levels are broadly fit for purpose, we do have several concerns,” she says. “With the current modular system, students too often quickly forget the ‘bite-sized chunks’ of knowledge they have learnt. This makes it harder for them to have an overall grasp of that subject, to synthesise information and to become independent learners.”

Dr Piatt also believes that the proposed reduction in the number of re-sits that students are allowed to do would be a step in the right direction. “We think it’s fair that people are given a second chance if they have good reasons for under-performing in an exam, but more recently students have been allowed to do re-sits too frequently.” Universities have expressed concern that many students who don’t achieve the necessary grades first or second time around, don’t go on to do as well in their chosen degree course.

The Russell Group is particularly concerned about maths A-Level, claiming that some modules are just not challenging enough to equip students setting out for degrees in maths, engineering or physics. “There has been too much focus on an ‘emotional’ response to texts rather than on robust critical analysis in some subjects like English,” says Dr Piatt, whose organisation is already looking at how it might help shape and improve qualifications, subject to “real pressures of time and resources.”

In the midst of all this, a report also surfaced last week revealing that far too many young people are ill-informed about their career options. Joint research from the Financial Skills Partnership and Career Academies UK (based on a survey of 17 and 18 year old Career Academies UK students) suggests that many young people hold views about careers and how they might progress towards them, that are simply not based on evidence.

According to the report,
Routes to Success, young people lack awareness of their options, including a misunderstanding of university fees, apprenticeships and school leaver programmes, and that many young people are making poorly informed choices which may affect their future career options and the talent pipeline for many industries. The report calls on government, educators and employers to take steps to address these issues and suggest that they need to have a single coherent message on progression routes.

Official unemployment figures released last month by the Office for National Statistics show there was a slight decline in the number of people out of work. However, there are still too many young people, from school leavers to graduates, unemployed and searching for a job or training.

Financial Skills Partnership chief executive, Liz Field claims the research shows that many young people know far too little about their potential career options, and that employers, educators and the government could all do more to help. “We need to equip young people with the knowledge and skills to take responsibility for their own career planning and progression, if they are to be the professionals of tomorrow, able to lead us out of recession and into growth and renewal,” she adds.

Les Hunt

Reader Comment:

From Mr Martin Wilson

How disappointing - what we need is education for jobs, not education for academia.

The major role of education in a modern society is to prepare students for employment. This requires coordinated consideration of the work we hope to be doing in this country and the education that is required to meet this requirement, not some academic Holy Grail. GCSE or “O”, “A” level content and degree subjects are lively debate topics which are irrelevant. Effective education in this economy must feed the needs and ambitions of employers.

Now is a good time for this debate. There is a conceptual change to the way that Universities are funded which seems to be ignored by the Russell group and others. Higher Education is no longer funded by the Government and students are now customers, rather than grateful recipients of an “academic prize”. Courses, in the new customer lead marketplace, will only run by student demand and the demand will ultimately come from the need to be employed and hence the requirements of employers. “A” level students require a path from school to employment and it is up to Universities to supply this or to go out of business. Universities will only survive by delivering this.

The journey through education must “deliver” for the passengers and, like a bus, it must be possible to get on and off where and when you want or need. It is vital in a fair and just society that education should be available to all and at any stage if life. It should be possible to leave the bus and get back on, and not necessarily at the stop you got off at. Failures should never count against the student as long as the journey is completed. The number of retakes is not significant, we all learn at our own rate and with different hooks.  The criteria for acceptance onto any course should be that the student should stand a reasonable chance of success. The first stop on the state education bus is generally after GCSE level at 16.

Education at this level must provide the means to be independent and meet the needs of employers of “unskilled” staff. The next stop is at “A” level at 18. “A” level courses must take successful GCSE students and progress them to “A” level standard. This must serve the needs of employers requiring capable employees, not necessarily university intake requirements. The graduate bus stop is the destination to find employment requiring independent thinking. This is the output of universities and universities must bridge the gap between “A” levels and independent thought, regardless of what that takes. 

As for maths “A”’s, it seems the majority of technical degrees have a first year maths module which pretty much repeats the “A” level syllabus.  I took my degree 30 years ago and have worked in engineering ever since. I don’t use much of what a learnt in my every day work and much of the mathematical skills I that arduously acquired are more often replaced by suites of software which are quicker at producing results that are packaged in a “professional” looking format. So let’s not get too hung up on maths, after all it’s a tool like the software packages, and let’s concentrate on delivering employees.

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