State urged to 'back out' of A-levels

24th June 2011 at 01:00
Cambridge Assessment accuses governments of 'hijacking' exams

The Government should "back out" of A-levels and allow them to revert to their historical role as university entrance exams, according to one of England's main awarding bodies.

Cambridge Assessment, parent company of the OCR exam board, believes the state "has hijacked school exams" over the last 40 years.

In a paper launched this week it argues: "The state's greater role in defining the content of syllabuses and the way in which they are examined has led to a kind of divorce between the users (universities) and the producers (exam boards) of qualifications."

It comes days after controversial comments from Michael Gove, who said he wanted to "change our discredited exam system".

The education secretary, criticised by heads and parents for speaking out during exam season, told The Times: "We do need to do something to strengthen confidence in A-levels."

Mr Gove and Cambridge Assessment are at one in wanting universities to play a central role in designing A-levels.

The exam board, owned by Cambridge University, wants university academics to "take the major role in determining the knowledge, skills and understanding they expect of a candidate in a subject".

The paper suggests extra pay may be necessary, along with career progression, to make involvement in A-levels "attractive" to academics.

It accepts A-levels currently have a variety of purposes including qualification for jobs and "as a method purely to award achievement to date". But it argues that this is part of the problem and suggests it should be made clear that "the primary purpose of A-levels is for higher education entry".

Cambridge Assessment says that if universities' demands on A-levels were met, the rest of society would be reassured about their quality.

On Saturday, Mr Gove said: "It has become easier to get an A at A-level or GCSE than it used to be and that's a problem."

Cambridge Assessment said it had no problem with the education secretary's intervention because he was setting out broad policy. A spokesman said its objection was to the Government dictating the form A-levels should take.

Last July, Mr Gove called for the scrapping of AS-levels and new A-levels with "fewer modules and more exams at the end of two years of sixth-form" to spark "a revival of the art of deep thought".

These comments prompted Cambridge University to write to Mr Gove defending AS-levels as an "invaluable indicator of progress".

Heads said Mr Gove's latest comments undermined the achievements of pupils sitting examinations. Exam boards are also privately furious at Ofqual's decision to announce a debate on exam standards last month just as exam season was beginning.

Universities minister David Willetts said: "Universities know about the strengths and weaknesses of their entry qualifications, such as A-levels. So it makes sense for universities and exam boards to work closer together on qualification design, just as they used to in the past. It could help improve confidence in the exam system."

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