Government plans to overhaul GCSEs and A-levels at the same time will 'wreck' education, says Oxford University's head of admissions

Mike Nicholson told a conference of exam board representatives of 'tragic consequences' of exam reform

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The Independent Online

Education Secretary Michael’s Gove’s exam reform will “wreck” the English education system, the head of admissions to Oxford University warned yesterday.

Mike Nicholson told a conference in London that reforms to A-levels were “another great example of the Government’s tendency to meddle in things they should probably really leave alone”.

Mr Nicholson added that there was “widespread concern - not restricted to the secondary sector but also higher education” to push ahead with reforms to GCSEs and A-levels at the same time, adding: “The impact of bringing in both is going to just wreck the English education system.”

He added that plans to make the AS-level exam a standalone qualification would have “tragic consequences” for efforts to increase the participation of disadvantaged students at university.

His comments, made at a conference for teacher and exam board representatives organised by the Westminster Education Forum, coincided with a claim by headteachers’ leaders that Mr Gove’s sudden changes to the exams system had “eroded” their confidence in him.

Mr Nicholson’s comment will be a blow to Mr Gove; he has been the respected head of admissions at Oxford for seven years and has no track record of being a critic of government policies. Instead, he has spent much of his working life on “outreach work” , encouraging disadvantaged pupils to apply to Oxford – which, he believes, will be hampered by the reforms.

Also, the entire policy was designed to appeal to the country’s leading universities by giving them more say in devising the exams.

Mr Nicholson told the Forum there was “limited evidence” any changes to A-levels were necessary, adding that part of the problem was that there was a “total misunderstanding” and “widespread confusion” over information about the reforms that was in the “public domain”.

In particular, he questioned the need to move to linear exams at the end of the two-year A-level course, adding that different styles of qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate adopted a modular approach - assessing students during the course,

“A-levels basically didn’t really need to change because we can cope with it [the present system],” he said.

On AS levels, he added: “The loss of AS levels will have tragic consequences for widening participation and access to university. AS levels are excellent because they give students a very clear indication of what they are capable of achieving.

“The real danger is students will plough on believing that they may not be capable of applying to a highly selective course - but equally (others) believing that they are capable of applying to a highly selective and competitive course.

“The loss of AS levels will have a really significant result on the likelihood of students from a disadvantaged background progressing to higher education.”

Under the Government’s plans, AS levels would be a standalone qualification - rather than act as the first year of an A-level course.

Earlier, Caroline Jordan, who chairs the Girls’ School Association’s education committee and is headmistress of Headington School in Oxford, told the conference that teenagers would turn away from A-levels as a result of the reforms - and turn to qualifications like the IB - which offered a broader range of studies and were free from government interference.

She added that the loss of standalone AS levels would lead to more universities introducing their own intelligence tests for would-be students.

Mike Griffiths, head of Northampton School for Boys and former president of the Association of School and College Leaders, added that the Government’s proposals were “a solution in search of a problem”.

“Decoupling AS and A-levels is a profound mistake and will lower not raise standards,” he added. Pupils would no longer opt for a broader range of studies.

Meanwhile, his association, ASCL, expressed “anger and frustration” over the Government’s decision to rule that only pupils’ first attempt at a GCSE exam could count towards league table rankings.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of ASCL, said: “Mr Gove wants schools to get the best outcomes for all of their students yet he has introduced a change that means the performance measure does not record students’ final examination results. I am sure that students and parents will be more concerned about their final exam outcomes than the route that they have followed to obtain those results.

Mr Gove announced the change three weeks ago because of what he called the “damaging trend” of schools putting pupils for their exams too early - in order to secure the best chance of getting them a C grade pass to boost their league table position..  Some pupils had been put in for maths GCSE as many as seven times, it emerged

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said of Mr Nicholson’s comments: “The OECD’s sobering findings on literacy and numeracy last week demonstrate the need to tackle grade inflation and restore confidence and rigour in exams.”  

The OECD report said 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK (excluding Wales and Scotland) came 21st out of 24 nations  in literacy and 22nd out of 24 in numeracy.

The spokeswoman added: “We are putting universities, not politicians, in charge of A-levels to ensure they prepare children for work and higher education.

“According to Ofqual [the exams regulator], the clear majority of universities favour A-level predictions over AS levels as an indicator of ability. Returning A-levels to single exams will end the test treadmill in sixth forms - something which many teachers complain about.”

Mr Gove also faces a clash with teachers’ leaders on another front on Wednesday, as members of the National Union of Teachers and National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers stage the latest in their round of regional one-day strikes in protest over their pay and conditions. Schools in the North East, Cumbria, London, the South East and South-West will be hit.