A Level reform

A Level reform

As A Level reform gathers pace in the UK, there is a growing demand for information about the causes and key consequences of the change.

Previously there was a more balanced ecology; schools, awarding bodies (exam boards) and Higher Education (HE) institutions existed in a close set of relationships. At that time, any pressure from schools on exam boards to give a greater number of unwarranted higher grades (grade inflation) was offset by adverse reaction conveyed by universities to exam boards regarding the quality of the people arriving with those grades. However, since the 1990s, the links between schools, exam boards and HE were replaced by more powerful interactions between the state and each of these sets of institutions

At the same time many of the A Level exam boards passed from the ownership of universities. A Levels were given a number of purposes (e.g. for life, for work, for accountability) in addition to their primary purposes of entry to HE and differentiation for entry into different institutions. Examiners, with strong connections into school teaching but with progressively fewer links to HE, became ever more concerned with technical accuracy but lacked direct contact with the ultimate ‘users’ of qualification in universities. Complaints about the quality of A Level examinations grew.

Cambridge Assessment continued to explore, with a range of policy makers, researchers and institutions, the issues surrounding the disconnect between exam boards and HE. Four strands of work arose from this exploration:

  • Our international arm, Cambridge International Examinations, set out to design a new post-16 qualification, the Cambridge Pre-U, in active association with academics. It found many admirers.
  • Cambridge Assessment explored how best HE could re-engage with A Level design, consulting widely with academics through colloquia, seminars and discussion groups. Policy papers were produced and interaction took place with politicians and civil servants about the practicalities involved.
  • Our Research Division set out to underpin both policy prescription and future qualification design with a sound evidence base with a programme extending over several years. Systematic research methods, both qualitative and quantitative, have been used to ensure the rigour of the findings. This work is an important means of restoring and strengthening links with HE by investigating perceptions of HE lecturers and by identifying the key differences in pedagogy reported in the educational literature.
  • Our UK arm, OCR, set up a central HE Forum with representation from across the sector from admissions tutors, managers and other personnel. In addition, eleven subject groups were set up with over 70 institutions and nearly 200 HE staff, as well as learned societies, employers and teachers being involved in direct development discussions.

Government strategy has now picked up key aspects of the HE engagement proposals explored in our programme of work, with the Secretary of State for Education setting out the new landscape on 3rd April 2012. The exams regulator, Ofqual, launched a consultation on A Levels which closed in September 2012. To read OCR's response to the consultation please email partnerships@ocr.org.uk.

Cambridge Assessment is pleased to be associated with the reforms and we are working to ensure they are a success with, as ever, research underpinning our approach.