It was announced today that Michael Gove has called on the qualifications watchdog to let Russell Group universities set A-level exams, and has instructed exam boards and ministers to ‘take a step back’ from dictating their content. This is amid fears that young people are woefully unprepared when they start higher education. A poll of lecturers has found that many think the current A-levels do not adequately prepare students for higher education and three-fifths said that their university had to offer catch-up session for first-year undergraduates.

For the moment, let us put aside the argument that Russell Group universities only provide higher education to a small minority of A-level students and why should employers or indeed teachers not have input into A-level exams as well? In his letter, Gove wrote that ‘it is important that universities are satisfied that A-levels enable young people to start their degrees having gained the right knowledge and skills’, and that the current exams are simply not rigorous enough.

I would argue that the problem is not the rigour of exams but the predictability of them. It is that year after year students know which topics are likely to come up and so exam success is more dependent on the ability to forecast questions than on real analytical or critical skill. The issue is not so much that the content of A-levels is inadequate; it is that the way subjects are taught means that students are not taking ownership of their work, and therefore they are not learning the necessary skills that are so important for higher education and beyond.

Students need to be taught throughout their education in a way that encourages independent learning. That way, A-levels will become less of a box ticking exercise and will add real value, developing real skills and understanding in young people. This is the philosophy that we advocate at Enabling Enterprise. Readiness is not something which can be achieved simply by getting Russell Group universities to set exams, but calls for a more creative approach to teaching. Trying to better prepare students for university by altering A-level exams is like expecting you or me to win an Olympic race just by giving us the right running shoes. An athlete needs long-term training to reach their full potential; so do young people.

At Enabling Enterprise, we encourage students to think and learn independently throughout their primary and secondary education. No matter what the subject area, students gain a more profound understanding and develop a core set of skills if they are fully engaged in something that they have ownership over. For business studies, this might mean setting up their own business or for English, it might mean starting their own school magazine. The key is, if students are able to generate their own ideas and then develop them into meaningful projects, rather than being spoonfed according to prescriptive exam criteria, they are more likely to care about their work, and are more likely to succeed. The skills and understanding that students gain by taking ownership of their own work undoubtedly leave them better prepared for university or whatever they decide to go on to after school, regardless of whether Russell Group universities or the DfE are to set A-level exams in future.

Written by Anna Chojnicka

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