Will funding match the reforming zeal of the new A-levels? - January 23 2012
One of Michael Gove's characteristic tricks is to use the rhetoric of progressive education to sell what are essentially traditional policies. That has been in full effect today as he proposes a return to the A-levels of the 1990s by portraying it as a lifeline for the most disadvantaged students.
"This will allow students to develop a better understanding of their subject through the greater maturity that will be developed over two years of study - something that I know teachers believe can be particularly important for students from disadvantaged backgrounds," he said in a letter to Ofqual.
His plan means undoing the changes introduced by Curriculum 2000 and replacing its continuous string of modular exams with papers testing the accumulated knowledge of two years' work. AS-levels will revert to being a standalone qualification with half an A-level's content.
Just over two years ago, however, Cambridge University was making precisely the opposite case to Mr Gove: it credited these reforms for its improvements in widening participation. According to Cambridge, modular AS-levels and A2s helped to give disadvantaged students the confidence to apply to top universities, knowing they had already succeeded in some of their exams.
As the TES revealed at the time, admissions director Geoff Parks warned Mr Gove: "We are worried . that if AS-level disappears, we will lose many of the gains in terms of fair admissions and widening participation that we have made in the last decade."
Exactly who believes that disadvantaged students will thrive more under high-stakes, end-of-course testing, on the other hand, Mr Gove doesn't say.
But by raising the stakes at 16 to 18, Mr Gove also highlights another issue: given the importance of these years, why does he provide less funding for students at this critical time than for any other period of education?
It's a problem that is increasingly bothering sixth form colleges, which can't cross-subsidise with other age groups, as the Department for Education protects pre-16 school budgets from austerity, leaving 16 to 19 isolated.
Julian Gravatt, assistant chief executive of the Association of Colleges, sees a silver lining in that introducing new, tougher exams in 2015 gives DfE an argument to protect 16 to 18 funding in the next spending review.
But he says that on current estimates, students receive 22 per cent less funding when they move from year 11 to year 12. If these exams are so important, shouldn't the funding reflect that?