The Education Secretary’s letter to exam regulator Ofqual, in which he asked for formal control of A-level content to be passed from exam boards to universities, has caused many to stress the need to consider students not going to university.
Michael Gove wrote to the chief regulator of the exam regulator, Glenys Stacey, earlier this week in a letter that highlighted his concern that the current A-level system isn’t preparing students well enough for higher education.
Responding to the Education Secretary’s plans, Stacey said: "Ofqual welcomes the intention to give universities a larger role in the design and development of A-levels."
She added: "We want A-levels to be the best possible preparation for young people's futures. We have spoken to employers, those in schools and in higher education and they tell us that A-levels need to cover sufficient depth and breadth so that students can hit the ground running when they go on to the next stage of their lives.
"We think that universities have a big role to play in making sure they do. We have also compared A-levels with qualifications in other countries."
Ofqual has now released research that it commissioned to find out what HE institutions, teachers and employers thought about A-levels. The report highlights concerns about the preparedness of students going into higher education following the completion of A-levels.
Responding to the report, curriculum manager for the Association of Colleges Debbie Ribchester said: “It is pleasing to see from the Ofqual report that A-levels are seen positively by not only universities but also the teachers and employers who were involved in this research."
She added: "If A-level curricula are to be changed then we think it would be right to include stakeholders, employers, further education colleges and sixth form colleges in the process.
"This would ensure that the development is not too narrowly focused on university entrance but more broadly suited to those students who will be entering the world of work or broadening their horizons beyond university.
"We have seen that the recent increase in tuition fees has meant that more and more employers are offering access to work straight from level three qualifications."
Others responding to the Education Secretary’s letter this week have also highlighted the need to consider those who may not choose to go to university and the importance of skills and expertise that can be applied in the workplace post A-levels.
The chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies Jill Lanning said: "Of course we would recommend that young people should give serious consideration to vocational qualifications that can lead to higher education or employment with the opportunity of studying for higher level professional qualifications.
"However for those that take A-levels and will be going into employment these qualifications need to deliver an education that is more rounded than merely being a preparation for a degree programme. A concentration on the demands of HE to the exclusion of the needs of employers would be a huge dis-service to those young people.
"Here we have sympathy for our colleagues in the JCQ awarding bodies whose expertise in the design of qualifications and balancing a range of needs including those of learners and teachers seems to have been ignored."
Lanning said that finding a way to accommodate the diverse and competing wish lists from the 109 universities in the UK would be no small challenge for them and for the regulator, Ofqual.
Commenting on the Education Secretary’s letter, Neil Bentley, Deputy Director-General of the Confederation of British Industry welcomed a debate on improving standards but also felt that focus should not just be on how best to prepare young people for university, but also on how to ensure they are well equipped for work.
He said: "Many young people choose to go straight into a job after A-levels, or start an apprenticeship, so they need to have developed essential employability skills, such as team working and time management, as well as academic rigour.
"Businesses value the A-level system as a key benchmark for recruiting the right young people, but believe that there is room for improvement. It’s crucial that the Government involves employers in any future changes to the system."
Responding to Gove’s letter, the National Union of Students warned against an elitist approach to A-level reform following the recent correspondence between Michael Gove and Ofqual and has called for ‘proper engagement with the diversity of modern routes to study and work’.
NUS President Liam Burns said: "The idea that A-levels should simply be concerned with admission to the traditional universities is at best hopelessly naive and at worst a purposefully elitist call to return to the top-down culture of the 1950s.
"There is no good reason why universities should be put in the uniquely privileged position of engineering an A-level system that must cater for a wide variety of learners and foster a wide diversity of routes to study and work which increasingly require flexibility rather than a linear approach.
"If Michael Gove truly wants to improve standards or demystify the university experience for those considering applying, then that is a laudable aim, but to pigeon-hole the purpose of A-levels as university admissions or to further restrict access to the top grades is not the right way to go about it."
This week’s news coincides with the launch of a website linking universities and A level students - The Faculties (http://www.thefaculties.org) helps universities to reach prospective students through free video podcasts by university lecturers speaking on topics from a range of subjects from the A-level curriculum.
Funded by JISC and supported by the major exam boards, its aim is to give potential university students an understanding of university teaching.
(Pictured: Education Secretary Michael Gove)