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Whose A-levels are they anyway?

April 9, 2012

During last week the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, wrote a letter to Ofqual expressing his desire that Universities take a leading role in setting and reviewing the content and standards of A-Levels in the future.

I think he left somebody out of the picture. I think this reflects a perspective on education, and formal qualifications, which is confirmed by the way he chose to send his message. What may look like a radical modernising step is actually not radical enough… for a time when many-to-many discussion is possible, and good examples are needed for Government 2.0

Gove’s valid starting point is “Who are A-Levels for?”. He’s chosen to identify Universities as those who have missed out on proportionate influence. He points out that Universities have to “use” A-level results to select who to admit – so they should have more say in how A-levels reflect fitness for their courses. In turn this would give them more say in how A-level courses should be designed to prepare students for University.

But who are A-levels for? I think that first and foremost they are for the people who take them! Isn’t the logical conclusion of Michaels Gove’s argument that we should be involve students in setting the content and standards of A-levels? Every year the bulk of the educational activity of thousands upon thousands of 16, 17 and 18 year-olds is channeled into knowledge, methods and skills determined by the A-level syllabus. It’s also driven by the need to pass A-levels, with good grades, in order (amongst other things) to gain access to Universities, and to specific courses at those Universities.

If we want to know whether A-levels are any good, we should be asking students, in retrospect, whether A-levels gave them what they needed. We might not concentrate on those studying right now, or who just got their grades, but we should certainly take serious account of the views, experiences and ideas of those currently studying in Universities, and those in the early years of employment and life after University. We should probably also take time to ask those now looking back on how A-levels ultimately shaped, or didn’t shape, careers of 20 years and more… or could have shaped them if they had taken the form that these ‘grey hairs’ in their 40s now think ideal.

This approach would be consistent with another change which has been consolidated by the introduction of much-increased tuition fees. This is the recognition that Universities, or at least the core teaching components, are for students! The more and more explicitly you turn students into customers the more you have to take account of their wants and needs… including their views on the overall purpose and value of education.

In contrast I think that Michael Gove, by handing down an open letter to an institution about the future role of other institutions, is still taking a largely top-down, even paternalistic, approach to education. This also seems close to the view that education is primarily there to fit people for jobs or, if you want to dress that up, “for roles in the economy”. So the waypoints constituted by exams are similarly there to indicate people’s fitness for certain types and levels of jobs, or their fitness for the next stage in processing [i.e. University] en route to some of the better paid jobs. This is the model still seemingly espoused by the less enlightened end of the CBI or FSB/BCC spectrum… though not a brush with which I would tar every business, or even every member of those organisations.

I would say that for ‘students’, from their perspective… from my perspective as a student 30 years on… education has several overlapping purposes. They are –

  1. to be able to lead a good life,
  2. to learn how to learn and, yes…
  3. to become qualified to do certain specific things at a certain level [through knowledge, methods and skills] i.e. to make a living and become part of some organisation or network which permits them to live, grow and learn [and maybe switch or change in a positive way] through work.

Just dwelling briefly on those.

  • The ‘good life’ doesn’t mean the life of a saint… it means having self-awareness, some sort of historical context and moral compass, being able to communicate, cooperate, cope, participate, and to *take pride* in and derive fulfilment from the content of what you do. It’s a long list, but it is a body of understanding and competence common to every aspect of life including, but not exclusive to, being able to function in a job which also provides the material means for the ‘private’ part of that life. It is the platform on which everything else is built. Attaining entry to University, and gaining access to the next level of academic or vocational training shouldn’t mean that, in so many of these other facets of growth and experience, you are somehow now ‘on your own’. Nor is it achieved, for example, by just tacking “The Engineer in Society” onto a Mechanical Engineering degree course for 1hr a week in year 2!
  • ‘Learning to learn’ is probably the key today – when so much information and example/opinion is available… not just via internet content per se, but also from a growing back catalogue of television, radio and film, however accessed, and from real-time ‘communities of practice’.
  • So ‘Qualification’ [to do a job, or to enter a university] comes third – not necessarily in importance. It’s third because the other two are prerequisites to doing it fully and well… they aren’t optional extras, or nice to have, if education is to be efficient and lasting.

Some of those things cited by Universities in their critique of A-levels – such as the ability to construct a coherent argument – are extremely useful for participation in a University course. But they aren’t exclusively academic. They are actually vital to living a good life and learning how to learn!

Although the nature of work has changed for so many people over the last couple of generations, I still detect a widespread view of education as primarily, or even only, about ‘getting a job’… and therefore feeding the economy as though it were some kind of boiler, which must be kept up to pressure no matter what the resultant quality of life for the population. Of course we need a vibrant economy, and we need to be realistic about the limitations placed on that by working conditions and living standards in other countries. But that doesn’t mean we have to be resigned to a perception that life equals work equals hard labour… otherwise so many people will be left wondering what [or who?] it’s all for. That will also include a portion of the population who, if they see education as only about getting a job, and who see no prospect of a job in their community and culture, will see absolutely no point in accessing education of any kind.

There are probably more ‘children’ in this country engaging with the wonders of mathematics, science, history, literature and design, than at any other time in our history. They do so in modes, and colours, and through media and senses, and real-time loops, which have leapt beyond text and books. They are being exposed to myriad futures and potential freedoms. Yet every time I see an article about measurement, testing, exams and qualification, it is illustrated with those high angle photos of exam halls. Here those same ‘children’ labour over the components of knowledge, looking for all the world like 19th and 20th century images of rank upon rank of factory workers labouring over the components of some pump or motor.

What I would like to see from Michael Gove are ‘3’ things.

  • The first is *Vision*. Not merely the vision to suggest that the franchise for defining and evaluating A-levels should be widened to more institutions, but to see that it should be widened to include everyone who is a real stakeholder in their function. This should be in direct proportion to how those stakeholders are affected and may include further subordinating institutions to the needs of the ‘end users’ they are here to serve.
  • The second, is… … *Vision*. The vision to anticipate what ‘life’ and ‘work’ may be like for many people in the future; ‘how’ and ‘where’ this work will be carried out… and what economic and physical infrastructure will support it. Crucially this requires looking beyond the ghost of the labour-intensive factory, and any conception of Universities still influenced by that ghost.
  • The third, and most general, is that he embrace the technologies which are making these changes possible, in order and in particular to enable true consultation, co-creation and [that word] debate amongst very large numbers of stakeholders. For the first time we have the means to transcend institutions, by letting those whose needs and best interests the institutions were created to promote, speak for themselves. This is a challenge facing every arm of government, it requires that many institutions including much of ‘Government’ itself, learn to become intermediaries, moderators and mediators, rather than tiers of representation or technocracy.

That’s what a “debate” will look like in future… a process which is capable of assimilating and iterating the knowledge, opinions and constructive suggestions of MANY. Supporting this process is one of the new things that the ‘world of work’ will need to learn to support. So, yes!, I would also like to see an A-level syllabus and standards for that new skill and technology. It’s something that many, including I hope the Michael Goves of the future, may choose themselves to be educated in.

I’m sure that somewhere in the plan, or in the brief, for the Secretary of State’s letter there was the notion of ‘stimulating a debate’ on this subject. But that seems a small, outgrown, sort of debate if it is only about stirring up a few more institutions and specialists. I also think that causing a few more people like me to sit in our dressing gowns on a Sunday morning and hold forth via the blogosphere, probably doesn’t qualify either.

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