New A-level projects could rescue exams

16th May 2008 at 01:00
Professor says extended projects mark 'a paradigm shift' in thinking
Professor says extended projects mark 'a paradigm shift' in thinking

Extended projects being introduced to accompany A-levels from September could help rescue secondary education from being narrow and outdated, according to a leading international academic.

Niall Ferguson, a professor of history at Harvard University and senior research fellow at Jesus College, Oxford, was harshly critical of A-levels, urging schools to consider the International Baccalaureate.

"I can think of no worse preparation for an undergraduate career at Harvard than a typical English secondary education and part of that is the tyranny of A-levels," he told a conference on extended projects held by Rugby School, Warwickshire.

Teachers should welcome the new projects with open arms, because they could mark the start of a "paradigm shift" away from secondary education's fixation with testing a narrow curriculum.

"One of the beauties of the extended project is to pull the English system away from what has become an anachronistic preoccupation with a particular kind of examination that does not really work," said Professor Ferguson.

Concerns that they would be open to plagiarism could be overcome if schools invested in marking software and taught students to behave morally, he said.

The projects will be an optional addition to A-levels (see panel, above right) but a compulsory part of the new 14-19 diplomas, which also start in September. But Professor Ferguson said the diplomas were not designed for teenagers intending to go to university.

He praised schools and universities in the United States for making students study a wide range of subjects. English educationists were too parochial, he said.

"Other countries teach more broadly. I don't think the way that we proceed is defensible any more," he said. "Testing can't be the dominant model on which our schools are based. If we look exclusively at a school's results the entire process becomes fatally flawed."

Professor Ferguson recommended the International Baccalaureate. He said it was right to test pupils under exam conditions, but added that the only progress tests really needed were at 11. He compared target-setting culture in English schools with the planned economy of the old Soviet Union.

"The systems are demonstrably dysfunctional, with the decisions of the planners being skewed by inadequate information and their own ideological views," he said.

Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society, told the conference that schools had been encouraged to spend too much time focusing on students on the CD grade borderline to improve league table positions at the expense of developing the most able.

He said many of the levers the Department for Children, Schools and Families are pulling to increase attainment are having the opposite effect on pupil engagement.

A department spokesman said: "Our qualifications strategy offers young people three very clear routes through A-levels, diplomas and the International Baccalaureate. Each has broad support."

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