As the dust settles on the education secretary Michael Gove's recent plan to reform A-levels, one of the unanswered questions is how universities should be involved. The Russell Group, for example, has already spoken out with concerns over how much time it will take up – and what does this mean for schools, who have just returned from the Easter break to a whole new world?
The idea of involving universities in school exam reform is, in my view, a strong one. Not only are they going to teach some of the students as they progress from A-level but, more importantly, they are in the best position to know what is relevant in their particular disciplines at any given moment. Although there are many courses now run by universities to help update teachers' knowledge, it is often difficult for teachers to stay on top of the latest developments in their subjects, in addition to preparing and giving lessons (not to mention the great increase in paperwork they are expected to undertake).
The challenge comes in getting the level of involvement right and balancing any involvement from universities with continuing engagement from schools to create a collaboration between universities, schools and examination boards. This three-pronged approach was taken when drawing up the plans for the relatively new qualification, Cambridge Pre-U. The big challenge in developing this post-16 qualification was forging strong, productive, relationships with teachers.
In trying to introduce any new syllabus, or even a new topic into a syllabus, there is always reluctance from the side of the teachers until it is understood why this new approach is being taken and how it will improve their lessons and their students' understanding. When I was first asked to look at an A-level syllabus, many years ago, and made recommendations, I was told that they could not be implemented since the topics would not be in the existing textbooks. Essentially, we could only remove things from the existing syllabus, not add to it.
Perhaps one of the most worrying changes in the science syllabuses is the gradual exclusion of maths. It is simply not possible to study the physical sciences at university without some understanding of mathematics. We are in danger of giving students the impression that it is not necessary to study maths for the sciences, which can lead to a nasty shock at university. What is needed is a thorough look at what is on the syllabus and why it is there. This is certainly something that the universities could have a valuable hand in.
An example from my own subject, chemistry. The analytical topic of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) had crept into the A-level syllabus. I remember encountering this during my A-levels some 25 years ago and being bewildered by it then. This is a subject that at University of Cambridge we have felt is better left to the second year to teach properly since it rapidly becomes so complicated. However, there are variations that are simpler to grasp, notably carbon-NMR. In designing Cambridge Pre-U, we included carbon NMR because it was easier to understand and was also more interesting to teach. This is because real-life molecules can actually be analysed using it, even by weaker students.
By working hand-in-hand with schools, the course we eventually produced – Cambridge Pre-U – gives the students a great understanding of their subject and certainly prepares them for continued study in their chosen areas. One of my colleagues at Cambridge has commented, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, that if the students all came here knowing the content of this course, we would not have to teach our first year. Of course, this is not true, nor is it what Cambridge Pre-U is about; it is about providing a sound educational course that is still accessible to all students of varying ability but one that gives them the skills to truly understand their chosen subjects and further develop these if they choose to go on to university. This can only be accomplished with the co-operation of all parties involved: teachers, universities and exam boards.
So that's the lesson for Gove – definitely involve academics but remember we're one of a number of voices and the real key is get everyone working together to develop qualifications that allow our students to be truly fit for the future.
Dr Peter Wothers is a fellow and director of studies in Chemistry at St Catharine's College. He was instrumental in developing the syllabus for the Chemistry Pre-University qualification.
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