Universities pay price of school target culture

11th January 2008 at 00:00
Degrees extended to four years to help students catch up, say academics.

The Government's emphasis on testing and targets in schools is damaging higher education, with claims that almost every university now runs remedial and study skills courses to compensate for the deficiencies of spoonfed pupils.

The news is revealed in a major report published yesterday by Times Higher Education on the growing dislocation between the school and university sectors.

The report came as it emerged that state comprehensives have a disproportionately high number of pupils taking "soft" A-level subjects that many leading universities are now blacklisting in their entry requirements.

Times Higher Education, relaunched as a magazine yesterday, reported that schools are spoonfeeding pupils to pass their exams but failing to produce young people with the knowledge and skills required for university. The higher education sector is also failing to adjust to an expansion from serving 20 to 50 per cent of the population.

Traditional three-year courses at English universities are being extended to four years to accommodate the extra time remedial work takes in the first year, according to Alice Rogers, professor of maths at King's College London and vice-president of the London Mathematical Society.

Barbara Hibbert, head of history at Harrogate Grammar in North Yorkshire, has researched a PhD on the experiences of A-level history pupils in their first year at university. "In the sixth form they thought they were thinking independently, but when they got to university they realised that they had been spoonfed," she said.

"If the Government wants more young people to get their A-levels, then that is what teachers will deliver. The examination system now means that we are not allowed to let children fail at A-level."

Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King's College London, said: "For the sciences and languages and maths there is a growing problem. I do not think it is just people being hung up on the good old days, but there are real issues on abilities."

Professor Dylan Wiliam, from London University's Institute of Education, said universities had failed to understand that A-levels had not become easier but no longer measured what they used to.

Leading universities are starting to draw distinctions between types of A-level that are likely to disadvantage comprehensive pupils.

Cambridge University and the London School of Economics are among those to have compiled lists of less-favoured subjects such as media studies and travel and tourism.

Wendy Piatt, director general of the Russell Group, representing 20 top universities, said her members were not barring particular A-levels but advising candidates about the most useful subject combinations.

The group published figures showing that while comprehensive pupils accounted for 74 per cent of all A-level entries in 2006, in less favoured subjects they were over-represented with 93 per cent in media studies. Independent schools made up only 15 per cent of A-level entries but were over-represented in tougher subjects such as further maths with 35 per cent.

Pam Iles, head of St Dunstan's community school in Glastonbury, said: "It may be that A-levels offer less of a preparation for universities than was the case 20 years ago.

"Now we are trying to get 50 per cent of the population through university, and that means working with people whose skills and needs are quite different and may need more support when they get there."

Vicky Tuck, principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College, said universities needed to do more. Some of her pupils found their courses "flimsy" and disappointing.

"While they appreciate that they must do personal research and take control of their own learning, they still expect to be stimulated," she said. "But with the strongly academic universities this doesn't really happen. Professors are obliged to concentrate on research ... so teaching suffers."

Vicky Tuck profile, page 12.

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