Gove's A-level vision dims

Universities won't risk their brands on reformed A levels, says AQA chief

William Stewart

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Government plans for higher education to endorse reformed A levels are being rejected by universities that fear the move could damage their "brands", according to the head of a major exam board.

Andrew Hall, chief executive of AQA, told TES he had spoken to a range of universities and found a "real reluctance to put their brands on the line" by publicly backing individual A levels. There were also fears that the scheme could mislead pupils, who might expect automatic entrance to a university if they passed an exam it had endorsed, Mr Hall said.

The news is a major blow to the government's planned reforms and the strongest evidence yet that higher education does not want to be involved in the way that Michael Gove had hoped.

In March, the education secretary told exams watchdog Ofqual that universities, rather than exam boards or government, should "drive" the A- level system and have "far greater involvement" in designing and developing the new exams. Mr Gove said "university ownership" of A levels must be "real and committed" and that exam boards should provide evidence of "university endorsement" of their qualifications.

Ofqual set out plans in June, currently in consultation, that would require boards to show that at least 20 universities - including 12 "leading research institutions" or universities with particular expertise in the subject - were willing to publicly endorse an A level.

But Mr Hall said: "I think there is going to be a real challenge about universities wanting to give that very public endorsement . They are very happy to be involved in their development, but exposing their brand is something we have got a clear view that they don't want to do."

His conclusion follows "face to face conversations" with "an awful lot of universities" from across the higher education sector, including the "elite" Russell Group.

Asked to explain their reluctance, Mr Hall said: "What is a university's core activity? What does it do? Universities are about teaching and research. If I was running a university and I've put my brand on (an A level) and someone then passes that exam, is there an implication if the student then passes that exam that they are entitled to go to that university? There are all sorts of issues about access."

The reluctance is only the latest setback for Mr Gove's A-level plans. In June, his former top official at the Department for Education, Sir David Bell, now vice-chancellor at the University of Reading, told TES that universities did not have the "appetite" or capacity to take the leading role in A-level development that the education secretary wanted.

The elite Russell Group of research-based universities - pin-pointed for involvement by Mr Gove - has also warned that while it wants to help shape new A levels, its members face "real pressures of time and resources".

Mr Hall has proposed an alternative plan that would still see universities involved in A-level development but would not require them to publicly endorse the qualifications. Instead, exam boards would take their proposed new exams to a small committee of no more than five or six universities representing the sector as a whole, as well as learned societies.

The committee would endorse an A level once it had seen evidence that universities with the right subject expertise had been involved in its development, alongside employers, "teacher associations" and learned societies.

Mr Hall said the cost of the new system, which he said had won broad approval from universities, could be met by exam boards paying accreditation fees.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of rival exam board OCR, has previously said that any attempt to create a joint university body for A levels could cause delays and that a quicker way would be for exam boards to seek approval from individual universities.

But Mr Hall said his way would give the boards "much more chance" of delivering the first new A levels by 2014, as Mr Gove wants - a timetable Ofqual has admitted is "very tight".

"This approach would be quicker to introduce than trying to convince universities to put their brands on the line," Mr Hall said.

Ofqual said its consultation on A-level reform was open until 11 September and it welcomed all comments and ideas.

Universities UK did not wish to comment until it had decided its consultation response.

A Department for Education spokesperson said leading academics from the "best" universities had identified "serious problems" with A levels. "That's why we are working with Ofqual and the exam boards to involve universities far more closely," she said.


Other proposals in Ofqual's consultation on A-level reform:

- A different grading system for new A levels to avoid "invalid" comparisons with existing A levels.

- Abolition of January exams for A and AS levels from 2013.

- Limit resits to one per qualification from 2013.

- Abolition of AS levels. Ofqual is also consulting on making AS levels standalone qualifications or maintaining the status quo.

Original headline: Gove's A-level vision dims as higher calling is ignored

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William Stewart

William Stewart

William Stewart is News editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @wstewarttes

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