Gove's "new" A' level scheme?
Now we shouldn't make too much of this as yet. So far, all that's happened is that Michael Gove has sent a letter to "Ofqual" suggesting (according to the reports) that Russell Group Universities should be involved in devising A' level courses. But it's caused a lot of talk... and a good deal of that is not quite hitting the nail on the head.
Ok. I've only heard the reports that have been on the radio etc, and I'm only speaking for myself here... but this is how it seems to me.
First, as Wendy Piatt, the chief of the Russell Group, said on Newsnight last night, there isnt exactly a crisis in A' levels. But it's certainly true that you will hear a lot of academics complain about the gap between what is expected in the sixth form and what we expect at uni. One very strong line in arts subjects (and no doubt a bit of a nostalgic one) is that new students have very little experience of independent working. They are so used to "being taught" that they dont really know what it is to "learn", and how some of that learning must happen on your own. And they do tend to have a bit of a tick box culture to the whole process. What criteria must I fulfil in order to get a First?
But quite whether these, as yet very vague, proposals are going to hit that spot, who knows. But a lot of myths have already been spread in less than 24 hours discussion on this.
First: the idea that currently university academics have nothing to do with A' level courses. Well I don't know how it is in other subjects, but on and off throughout my University career (and that is over 30 years now), I have been consulted by exam boards and (along with school teachers and others) I have advised on course content etc. Indeed some of the current classical A' levels were originally devised by groups including a good number of academics. (One of M. I Finley's greatest legacies was the work he did with A' levels -- and that tradition of involvement still continues.)
Second: the idea that this is really a matter of curriculum content.
Maybe in some subjects it is (there was some discussion last night of whether calculus should be in or out). But, for me, it isn't the content that is the problem.
It's partly, as has come out in all the chat, the structure. Lots of people I know worry about the taking and retaking of bite-sized modules of material until you get the mark you need (mind you, that process of retaking is clearly evident in the information we see about candidates when they apply to us).
But that's not really the main thing. It seems to me that so long as you have League Tables, and so long as you don't have enough money and enough time to encourage real learning in the sixth form, changing the curriculum is just re-arranging the deck chairs.
Take Classics, and just one little example. We all think that getting A' level students down to read some of the best and most challenging Latin literature is important. "Set books" in some form, and detailed study of them are a good idea. And we all want them to be able to translate those books and think they should be tested on whether they can do that.
So what is the best way in the class room to bring that about? Well, in an ideal world you would read your Latin set books against the background of a wide range of classical reading. You would explore widely in them and around them. Students would have the time in class and outside it to get to feel confident and enjoy the texts, get t know them, explore the difficulties, etc etc.
Now imagine that you are a teacher and have a head breathing down your neck to maximise your A*s (because someone else is breathing down the head's neck . . . ); and imagine that you have two hours a week with your students, and they have precious little time for independent working outside that. What do you do? You strategize? You question spot like mad, you read the criteria with a tooth comb and you dictate the kids a translation of their set books, which you make them learn up. It probably will get you a few more A*s, but the intellectual damage will have been done. (And this isn't entirely new, even when I was a school -- though it didn't happen to me -- kids were learning Aeneid Book 1, word by word.)
The point is that you can have as challenging a curriculum as you like, but if you have a vicious struggle for league table supremacy and not enough resources in the system . . . any teacher ambitious for their school and their students (who need A*s to get to the university of their choice) will find some way of maximising their chances (it's the intellectual equivalent of tax avoidance....) (On league tables, see this British Academy study.)
Oh -- and can we please stopping lauding this professor of Artificial Intelligence at Stanford who is supposed to have let everyone in the world enrol in his courses by the internet. No he didnt. He let everyone in the world watch his lectures and submit online quizes... and that's quite different from (or only a small part of) the experience of education as I understand it.