The short walk from Cambridge station to the OCR exam board's head office takes you past a huge banner for a private college that proclaims A levels are the "pathway to university". Today ministers want to turn that pathway into a two-way street, taking the A level back to its roots and ensuring that universities "drive" a set of radical reforms to the exam.
But Mark Dawe, OCR chief executive, has serious concerns about whether the 2014 deadline set by Michael Gove for the introduction of the new A levels can be met. And though the education secretary has set out the roles he wants for universities and exam boards in the reforms, Mr Dawe believes another important party should also be involved: teachers.
"They have to be able to stand up and teach the qualification," he argues. "They will know exactly, subject by subject, the things that work and the things that don't.
"How much higher education knows about A levels is questionable. They see the results coming out at the other end, but they are not involved in the day-to-day delivery. That is why it is so important to get to teachers who live and breathe these qualifications every day of the week."
To that end, TES is today launching the Great A-level Debate to gather teachers' views (see panel). OCR has agreed to include the findings in its consultation response to exam watchdog Ofqual.
As far as higher education is concerned, OCR, owned by the University of Cambridge, plans to go further than consulting the elite Russell Group universities emphasised by Mr Gove. The board will talk to all university groupings, including the former polytechnics, about A-level reform.
It is an approach that raises the possibility of different A levels endorsed by different groups of universities or individual institutions. "That's the last thing we want," Mr Dawe stresses.
And he says the "surprising amount of consistency" the board has found in universities' views means it will not be a problem. It is the "tight" timetable that concerns him. The grading debacle in 2002 that followed the last great A-level reform led to a recommendation that all schools should be given at least a year to familiarise themselves with any big exam changes before they are actually introduced.
That means the new A levels will have to be finished by summer 2013, but Ofqual's consultation on a new framework will not end until September, giving exam boards just nine months to consult on and finalise the exams.
"We believe if it were just OCR doing this we could meet that timetable," Mr Dawe says. "But if a university approval process applied on top of that gets too complicated and drawn out it will make it near impossible."
He fears that any attempt to create a joint university body to represent their views could take too much time, and it would be quicker for exam boards to seek approval from individual universities.
But Mr Gove insists that the bar for university involvement should be "a high one". "University ownership of the exams must be real and committed, not a tick-box exercise," the education secretary told Ofqual in March.
Mr Dawe also wants time to test university views with teachers. "If they are saying, `That's rubbish', we can take those arguments back to HE and say, `This is what the teachers are saying; why are you saying something different?'"
He already has clear views of his own about where A-level reform should go. AS levels should stay, a position he believes both universities and schools share. But the split between AS and A2 towards the final worth of the A level should be 4060 rather than the current 5050.
That raises the possibility of AS levels being taken earlier. It is a change Mr Dawe says would work for exam boards, but he fears it could leave a "dead term" for teachers, who might find it difficult to motivate pupils waiting for AS results.
OCR backs the increasingly widespread view that the January exams window should go. Mr Dawe says confining AS-level resits to the summer, when pupils have to take all their other exams, would act as a disincentive to "game-playing" for a "few extra marks".
All this change comes against a backdrop of much wider concern about exams in England and Wales. A summer of unusually high numbers of exam paper errors, followed by revelations about "inside information" being given to teachers through exam board seminars, has led to many portraying it as an industry in crisis.
So does Mr Dawe think it is the victim of an unfortunate coincidence of events, or does he accept that there is a deeper malaise?
"Or is it that the media have turned their spotlight on to exams and are just looking for opportunities?" he counters. "Exams are becoming so important in everyone's minds that any suggestion that a single student might have the wrong result for whatever reason causes concern, and we are dealing with a system where 15 million papers are marked every year."
On exam seminars, he says that The Daily Telegraph investigation found nothing of concern in OCR events. Moreover, he fears that the ban on such seminars from 2013 could cause problems for the introduction of the new A levels.
Mr Dawe is considering using online "webinars" as an alternative, but warns: "It doesn't matter what you do, it is really hard to replace face- to-face interaction."
THE GREAT DEBATE
TES is today launching the Great A-level Debate as part of exam watchdog Ofqual's consultation on the structure and design of the exams.
Over the months ahead, TES will be hosting online debates and surveys in a bid to find out what teachers think of the so-called "gold standard" and how they want the qualification to develop over the next few years.
The topics under discussion will include: Does grade inflation exist? Should all A levels have the same worth? Are A levels only useful as a university entrance exam?
Exam board OCR has agreed that it will use the views and findings generated by teachers in this discussion in its formal consultation response to Ofqual.
The best contributions will be in with a chance to have their work published in TES and win book tokens worth pound;50.
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