Julie Henry in The Telegraph, 19 Feb 2012:
School exam papers are to be vetted by university academics in a radical overhaul of the A-levels set by one of the country’s biggest exam board.
Mathematicians, historians and scientists from leading universities are working with the OCR board on the design of new “gold standard” syllabuses and assessments.
Universities including Cambridge, Oxford, Birmingham, Manchester, Nottingham, University College London, Sheffield, Leeds, Liverpool, Durham, Surrey, Warwick and York are involved in the programme which covers nine subject areas.
The move is in response to concerns about the content and rigour of A-levels and comes in advance of reforms by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, aimed at transforming a system critics say has been “discredited” by grade inflation. It suffered a further blow when some exam boards were revealed to be offering coaching to teachers in how to get pupils to pass
University scrutiny of A-level courses and papers is one of the proposals expected to emerge from the reforms.
Simon Lebus, the chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, which owns OCR, said: “If university academics set the content of A-levels, the state could greatly reduce its role in setting exam standards.
“This would return A-levels to their original role as the key filter for university entrance, guaranteeing that school-leavers arrive at university with the academic knowledge they will need to succeed in university courses.
“We have 100 academics and admission experts involved from universities around the country. Rather than just expressing discontent about what is in A-levels, they are outlining their key requirements.”
Government sources also indicated that modular exams taken in January by sixth formers would be scrapped to cut resits and the amount of classroom time lost to exams.
OCR is one of the few exams boards in the UK not to be implicated in the recent scandal where examiners were filmed telling teachers what would come up in exams.
Mr Lebus is now calling for the exam regulator to set up a national post-examination review of all A-level papers by university lecturers.
It would put universities at the centre of the annual checks on all A-levels, revolutionising a process currently dominated the regulator.
“We need academics and experts from learned societies to review papers and provide a critique of content,” he said.
“They would monitor where thing were not being asked that should be, whether the papers were easier or more difficult than the previous year and whether the exams set by one board were more challenging than another board.
“It would be similar to the role that external examiners provide to universities.”
Following December’s revelations, Mr Gove has said that “nothing is off the table” on exam reform.
Many schools fear that the overhaul could mark the end of the AS level qualification, taken in lower sixth and worth half an A-level.
Introduced in 2000, it has become a valued marker to schools and students of the progress they are making in their A-level courses. Currently sixth formers can sit exam modules in January as well as the summer.
But sources said that ministers had drawn back from abolishing the AS-level altogether and were now likely to scrap the January exams sessions.
Mr Gove is also considering a “franchising” system that could see one exam board producing all papers for one subject, to avoid the pressure on boards to make syllabuses easier to maintain their share of the market.