If you’re not a fan of this government, there’s plenty of things to complain about. It’s like a pick and mix. But for today my ire will be focused on one Mr. Gove, specifically his reforms to FE. Those of you who watched his performance given to the Education Select Committee may have noticed firstly his use of Orwellian language in ‘deepthink’ (always something you want to hear from those who allegedly represent you). Second was his apparently humanitarian reasons for returning to old style A-levels, or what he called ‘more linear assessment’. I have some problems with his vision for secondary and tertiary education, which I’ll take up your time with here.
A more linear assessment and the old style A-Levels refers to what he called ‘generally, but not always, preparation for university’. This is true in the respect that for a lot of university subjects, most students will need to have A-Levels of a particular grade to be accepted. However, the current AS/A-Level system provides needed flexibility for students to explore how, what and why they learn before they are fully committed to one (or perhaps two) particular path(s). It is well known that in the UK, we specialise much earlier than many other countries. Promoting the virtues of linear assessment, Gove wanted to make sure we knew this was a fair deal, as doing a lot of coursework puts unneeded pressure on students. It would be fairer on them to have one set of exams at the end of their college life, freeing up all that time for reading and studying.
At the university I work at, we place a fair amount of importance on coursework. Not just coursework that is intended to keep your eye in with regards to academic skills, but coursework that actively affects your grades and therefore your degree. Off the top of my head (I am sure there are more than this) the only universities I can think of that place such value on end of course exams are Oxford and Cambridge. I hate to sound like a conspiracy nut, but it sounds like a Tory minister might be defending and propping up the old guard somewhat.
In multiple other walks of policy life, governments are increasingly keen to shift the idea that one size may fit all. So why, all of a sudden, is there a move (directed from up high, may I add) to try to bring it back in to education? In college I was terrible. I had the aptitude, but I couldn’t write an essay or do an exam to save my life. At least not in my first year. It took a lot of concentrated effort to improve. I am certain that if I had to face a prolonged set of exams at the end of my A-Levels I would not be where I am now. When I got to university everything changed as I was able to find a work routine and method that worked for me. But I was dependent on the flexibility (for better and for worse) that the FE sector had at the time to give me the opportunities to work on my skills.
Having said that, I do agree with Gove – like a true academic – to an extent. In my experience, there is too much variation with students regarding their academic skills. For me however, this isn’t a problem necessarily with the students or with the kind of qualification in place, but more with the support structures one can access. We shouldn’t return to models of education that were changed with good reason (this includes returning to O levels, though this is not the focus of this post). Perhaps instead students who wish to go to university could take an academic preparation course in their A-Level year where they can learn how to reference, the art of backing up arguments, how to critically analyse, and so on. In my mind this would provide the (for want of a better word) methodological skills needed to compliment perfectly the information gathering and processing skills students already gain from an A-Level.
With regards to the wishes of universities on the A-Level process, I think we have reason to be weary. It is fine to want students to start a university course with a working knowledge of academia and basic academic skills, but I don’t think we should be trying to engineer our perfect students. People learn in different ways and develop at different times. Some people need different context and atmospheres in which we do this. This is also why we should strongly resist any development of a two-tier academic system, with some universities being ‘research intensive’, whilst others are relegated simply to ‘teaching’ universities. It would be a massive step back, and it would deny thousands of people the chance to become involved with ground-breaking research.
Finally, I will finish off by highlighting a particular irony. There are grunts for a more academic school and FE system, yet the HE sector seems to become more professionalised each and every day. There is a subtle, yet noticeable polar shift that seems to be taking place, which will make particular skills just as redundant. Is it all that bad to have a system that lets people specialise at different times, and simultaneously explore different routes of education and research?