Tuesday 3 August 2010

Another Government, Another Shake-Up

The Conservative-led coalition government came to power in May and set about reforming every area of public life with what some would describe as indecent haste.

Michael Gove is our new education secretary and instantly went into negative territory on the credibility meter with his bungling of the announcements about schools that will undergo refurbishment work. This programme, of course, is being cut back, like everything else, but Gove's handling of the lists of schools made him look likely to be the second casualty of the already embattled new cabinet.

As I write, however, he is still in office. His latest pronouncements relate to the A-Level and, almost parodying his own party, he wants to take things back to some Golden Age he half-remembers, when the A-Level exam was indeed a single exam at the end of two years of study. He says he wants to "revive the art of deep thought". If his plans come to fruition, it would mark the end of the AS exams, which students take after their first year of A-Level study.

In a response to his comments this week, the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME) said harder exams could put students off studying A-Level mathematics and that this could trigger a "collapse" in A-Level maths student numbers and even lead to university department closures. Professor Dame Julia Higgins, chair of ACME, warned making A-level maths harder could result in a drop in the number of students taking the subject.

She said: "We feel it is very important that we warn you that implementing such a policy runs a genuine risk of repeating the collapse in the numbers studying A-level mathematics". She went on to say it was very likely that university mathematics departments would close as a result.

A-Level maths has been in a modular format since the introduction of Curriculum 2000 at the turn of the millennium. Student numbers fell by about 19% over the following 3 years. There was an overhaul in 2004 to make the A-Level more accessible, and the old "Pure" modules were replaced by the current "Core" modules. After 6 more years, student numbers are now more or less back to where they were before modularisation.

Michael Gove said universities had complained A-levels were not preparing students sufficiently well and that he wanted them to be more academically rigorous. Modular A-levels have been criticised as being easier than the traditional variety, because the learning is broken up into many small units. Critics argue that the process of modularisation has contributed to grade inflation, where the percentage of pupils getting a grade A has continued to rise year-on-year. This year, the A* grade will be used for the first time to reward those achieving the very best results. Cambridge University's STEP papers and the Advanced Extension Award have also been used to differentiate pupils with top grades.

But Cambridge University have joined with ACME in criticising Gove's remarks. Cambridge admissions manager Geoff Parks said AS-levels are an "invaluable indicator of progress".

He added: "We agree with the secretary of state in some aspects of the reform. We would agree that at the moment A-levels are too modular and there is too much examination. We are not sure all the opportunities for re-takes are advantageous. But we think there is a middle way between where we are now and the proposals he has set out."

The Department for Education said there was a need to restore confidence in public exams. It said it would work with universities for a "robust and rigorous" A-Level and that reform plans would be set out later in the year.


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