Britain’s Universities Push Back on Gove’s A-Level Reforms

In the United Kingdom, sixth-form students — the equivalent of high school juniors and seniors — currently pursue A-Level certifications after two years of study, with AS-Level exams coming after one year. Those AS-Level results also serve as achievement benchmarks that are useful to students and the universities to which they apply.

UK Education Secretary Michael Gove recently announced that all A-Level exams will come at the end of the two year course — and the UK’s prestigious universities find the policy wanting.

Tim Ross of the Telegraph reports that universities dispute the purpose of the new policy, and argue that it will make equality and accessibility to higher education more difficult for the students who need it most:

However, the Russell Group of leading research universities said it was “not convinced” that the move was necessary. The universities warned that the plan would make it harder to identify bright students from working-class homes.

Gove, a figure who has excited the intensity of both supporters and detractors in the education community, has fought battles on nearly every front in the UK’s education system. He was expecting to enjoy the support of UK universities with the new A-Level rollout, and he hoped to involve the universities in the creation of new exams.

The director-general of the Russell Group, Dr. Wendy Piatt, dashed those hopes:

Dr Piatt said results from AS-levels taken at the end of the first year of study help universities make decisions on which candidates deserve to be offered places.

“AS-level results after one year of study can also be effective in giving talented students from poorer backgrounds the confidence to apply to a highly selective university, thus helping to widen participation.”

Dr. Piatt offered no evidence that AS-Level results were a determining factor in driving students from weaker socioeconomic backgrounds to apply for university seats — or whether other interventions, such as formative assessments or improved academic counseling, might make up any shortfalls by eliminating mid-track AS-Level exams.

The reaction from the UK higher education community echoes decades-old calls to increase access to high-quality universities for Britain’s poor. On one side of the debate, proponents argue against elitist education policies that keep able students out of the system, while stalwarts insist that policy changes should recognize that high academic standards should not suffer.

And that appears to be Gove’s focus, as the Department of Education explained:

“That is why new A-levels will be linear, with all assessment at the end of two years of study to address the impact of modules and re-sits on grade inflation. As a result, changes must be made to AS-levels.

“AS-levels will therefore be redesigned as high-quality standalone qualifications.”

Michael Gove was first elected to Parliament in 2005 and was appointed to his post as Education Secretary in 2010 with the formation of the coalition government. Despite a cabinet re-shuffle in 2012, Gove retained his post.

Matthew Tabor

Matthew Tabor

Matthew is a prolific, independent voice in the national education debate. He is a tireless advocate for high academic standards from pre-K through graduate school, fiscal sense and personal responsibility. He values parents’ and families’ rights and believes in accountability for teachers, administrators, politicians and all taxpayer-funded education entities. With a unique background that includes work in higher education, executive recruiting, professional sport and government, Matthew has consulted on new media and communication strategies for a broad range of clients. He writes the blog “Education for the Aughts” at www.matthewktabor.com , has contributed to National Journal’s ‘Expert’ blog for Education , and interacts with the education community on Twitter and Google+.