The clamour for universities to reconnect with A levels has been building in recent years, with ministers calling for them to be involved in designing the qualifications. But now one of England's big three exam boards is going several steps further, making the radical suggestion that universities should be the official monitors of everyday A-level standards.
The proposal from Cambridge Assessment, parent company of the OCR board, would place universities right at the heart of the annual checks on all A levels, revolutionising a process currently dominated by the regulator, Ofqual.
Simon Lebus, chief executive of Cambridge Assessment and chairman of OCR, has said that higher education should play a major part in subject committees, which would meet every autumn. The committees would "review the previous summer's exam session and comment on whether the exams had been too easy or difficult, on whether one board's paper was better than another's and whether the content levels were right".
Mr Lebus is proposing that universities, along with "learned societies" such as the Mathematical Association, would critique individual papers, right down to the detail of whether specific topics such as trigonometry or calculus featured enough.
The subject committees would also look at how pupils responded and performed in the exams. Mr Lebus told TES that the approach would be "more organic" and less "rules based" than the current arrangements. "This addresses the issue that, at the moment, you get a lot of people in higher education criticising the standards of people coming in from schools," he said. "This would provide a platform for some sort of institutional engagement by higher education with the secondary school syllabus."
His proposal comes at a time when major structural changes to the exams system are being considered, after December's revelations about information given to teachers during exam board seminars. Education Secretary Michael Gove has said that "nothing is off the table".
Last week Pearson, owner of the Edexcel board, began its own consultation on standards in exams. Among the solutions it is suggesting is a set of "gold standard" questions common to all boards, set and marked collectively.
Pearson is also considering whether to set up an independent standards board that would include subject experts, university academics and employers, and whether examiners should be given professional status.
Mr Lebus said that his solution should "not be rushed" and would take several years to establish. He believes Ofqual should convene the subject committees. But he admitted that the system would replace a lot of the work currently done by the watchdog. "It would mean a move away from quite such strict adherence to subject and qualification criteria, and the very elaborate mark schemes and so on, because it would allow a more holistic approach to how exams were performing," he said.
"Ofqual has sole responsibility (at the moment) for setting and maintaining standards, and this would mean a migration of some of that responsibility to subject committees with a very active representation from stakeholders such as higher education."
An Ofqual spokesperson said: "We are currently discussing with ministers options for the future regulation of A levels and we welcome Mr Lebus's contribution to the debate."
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Suggestions for major changes to the exam system are coming from many quarters, after December's exam board seminar scandal:
- Education Secretary Michael Gove is looking at a "franchising" system that could see one exam board per subject. He has said that "nothing is off the table".
- The Commons education select committee was already considering whether there should be a single exam board.
- Cambridge Assessment wants universities to become an intrinsic part of monitoring standards.
- Pearson is consulting on common cross-board "gold standard" questions, professional examiners and creating a "balance of stretch and mastery".
- Ofqual, the regulator, began its own attempt to "open up the debate on standards" in October.