University students today have a shallower subject knowledge despite record improvements in A-level results over recent years, a report from the exams regulator Ofqual said last night.
The research paves the way for a return to traditional A-levels with exams at the end of a two-year course, scrapping the modular AS-level system, as favoured by Education Secretary Michael Gove.
His proposal provoked an outcry from teachers yesterday, who warned that thousands more pupils will fail their A-levels as a result. The Ofqual report said that while the A-level pass mark rose year on year between 1996 and 2010, universities failed to report any increase in the ability of their first-year students.
"If anything, students' theoretical subject knowledge was said to have grown broader but shallower," it added.
As a result, some universities had been forced to lay on remedial classes to get students up to scratch to start courses. It puts the rise in the pass rate down to teachers getting better at coaching their pupils for exams. The report argues that a move away from AS-levels – worth half an A-level and taken at the end of the first year of sixth form – would be a better way of developing pupils' thinking skills.
Mr Gove favours going ahead with the move and wants to see syllabus planning and exam setting passed to university academics – predominantly from the Russell Group of universities, which represents 24 of the country's leading higher education research institutions.
Teachers, however, claim AS-levels are crucial in broadening the curriculum and helping pupils find out whether a particular A-level course is suitable. Furthermore, it is the only sixth-form qualification pupils usually have when applying to university, as offers are made before they sit A-levels. Most pupils take four subjects at AS-level and then drop their weakest subject when it comes to the full A-level. Universities also gave a lukewarm reaction to Mr Gove's plans, claiming they were too "elitist". Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the million+ university think-tank, said representatives of higher education institutions had made it clear to Mr Gove that the A-level system was not "broken".
"Education ministers appear to have ignored this advice and by promoting reform without any additional funding, the costs of involving academics are likely to be passed on to schools by exam boards," she said.
Julia Neal, a history teacher and former president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, added: "We are preparing our students for entry not just to Russell Group universities but other universities as well. A-levels are also used as currency for employment. I am rather concerned this is in danger of becoming very elitist."
Schools Minister Nick Gibb defended the proposals. "They will ensure that A-levels have the confidence of universities and employers and ensure that students have the high level skills they need to succeed," he said.