Tory A level reforms reek of dogma
I’m not against reform in education – whether of qualifications or school governance. After all, I did plenty myself in my two stints as an education minister. However, I think reform should be based on evidence and preparing for the future rather than on dogma and deferring to the past.
There were two examples this week where the Tory-led government seemed more interested in headlines and dog whistles than in evidence. First – and most significantly – the education ministers announced changes to A levels. Modules will go and there will no longer be an AS examination at the end of the first year going on to an A2 (full A level) in the second.
The argument for the changes appeared to be firstly that modules prevent students from getting into a subject in depth. Thirty years ago, I studied a whole series of largely unrelated ‘modules’ to gain my Oxford PPE degree. I don’t think any of the education ministers – some of whom did the same degree – ever argued that their PPE degree ‘lacked depth’.
Second, ministers argued that taking an exam at the end of the first year meant that there were too many exams. It is certainly the case that young people nowadays can face three or four years of pretty solid exam taking with GCSEs, AS and A levels. That’s tough on them and on their parents! However, I was very struck by the power of some Cambridge University research publicised by the shadow education minister, Kevin Brennan. This showed that the strongest correlation with success at degree level came from AS levels – which is why they are widely used by universities in their admission decisions. As the universities themselves said, if there are no AS level scores to consider, they will be forced to revert to far more subjective teacher references, personal statements and less informative GCSE results. Cambridge University went so far as to say that these changes would ‘jeopardise over a decade’s progress towards fairer access to the University of Cambridge’. That would be a shocking betrayal of clever students from schools which don’t have a ready route into Cambridge.
So teachers, headteachers and universities were dismayed by the proposed changes. Perhaps we need the change to prepare people better for the workplace? No – the CBI criticised these changes for failing to create a coherent overall system. There is little evidence of a problem with the current structure of AS and A level exams – and there appears to be little support for these proposed changes. The only explanation for this reform, then, is an obsession with undoing anything put in place by the last government for the sake of headlines rather than young people’s educational opportunity.
The other change announced is to the ‘knowledge of life in the UK’ test, which is part of the process of gaining UK citizenship. The original test was introduced by Labour. It is right that those who want to make the UK their home should know about our culture, history and institutions and what it means to be a UK citizen. Unfortunately, it is this latter section which the Tories are removing from the test – just as they are proposing to greatly narrow the focus of school citizenship lessons. Other changes appear to be just petty. Apparently, the new test book removes mention of ‘New Labour’. People should learn about Margaret Thatcher, but isn’t it also important that they learn about the basis of the government over the last 16 years?
But my biggest problem is the reduction of the idea of citizenship to a knowledge of historical facts. Being a UK citizen is about rights and responsibilities – in welfare and the workplace, in the criminal justice system, the NHS and our daily lives. These can’t all be tested in a multiple-choice exam, but to remove them from the test book says a lot about a Tory view of the UK and of what being a citizen actually means to them.
A levels, citizenship, education, Michael Gove