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Lancaster University’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Mark E. Smith has been at the forefront of a move to toughen up A-levels. The report suggests upheaval across a variety of subjects in order to better prepare students for university. The review has recommended that English Literature students, for example, should study eight texts in depth, including one Shakespeare play and two other pre-1900 texts, instead of the current 12 texts briefly. The biggest changes will see History students having to cover 200 years and several different countries. Yet despite the Vice-Chancellor’s good intentions, surely toughening up A-levels will do little to resolve the matter at hand.
The fact is, the preparation that students really need for the demands of a degree is provided in first year. No matter how many times A-levels are ‘shaken up’, it is simply not feasible for sixth form teachers to prepare sixth form students for the demands of a degree. There is not enough time or individual contact to build up the rigours that students have to have to cope with the critical and often in-depth work required for degree standard. University staff can say what they like about how A-level education underprepares students for degree courses, because surely they will only be happy with A-levels if they were teaching them which, of course, will and should never happen.
Surely your first year at university is all about preparation; there is a reason why it doesn’t count towards your final degree grade. First year is about getting used to seminars and lectures, which are a world away from the classroom, self-motivation and the ability to use your free time well. Toughening up A-levels will simply leave universities with a bunch of stressed, mentally-exhausted young people.
I will admit that some A-level courses probably do need an overhaul. I’m a bit of a sceptic when it comes to subjects such as film studies for example, whose students spent two hours watching a film whilst Chemistry students raced through about three modules. The education system in Britain is far from perfect and changes do have to be made. But will studying eight instead of 12 texts in English Literature really make that much of a difference? Speaking as an English Literature student, if universities really wanted to make sure that A-levels provided the right preparation for degrees, A-levels should focus on more texts but at the same in-depth level. Studying English Literature as a degree requires you to read several texts in detail per week, as well as secondary and sometimes even further reading. Reducing the number of texts that A-level students study will simply make the move to university a bombardment of work, with people not knowing how to cope with the amount of detailed reading required.
A-levels also can’t be completely defunct or inadequate at this moment in time. I stupidly did five A-levels at college, including two of the subjects that have already been recommended for reform, plus another that will be radically changed; does this mean that I’m completely unprepared for university life because I don’t have the “specific academic skills such as researching, essay writing and referencing, and the wider skills of problem solving, analysis and critical thinking” that Smith outlines? I sincerely hope not.
What Smith as well as many other university staff across the country seem to have misunderstood is that the skills they so desire to see in prospective students are honed over time. A-levels aren’t completely lacking such critical skills, and sixth form students aren’t completely incapable. University is the final extension of perfecting such skills, and it would be ridiculous to try to make A-levels so tough as to make sure that young people already have these skills down to a tee.
To put it simply, toughening up A-levels to the extent that Professor Mark E. Smith’s review suggests is a bad move. Results will go down, and unfortunately universities like Lancaster University will suffer (I need not remind you of the whole admissions debacle this year). We need to be giving serious thought as to how we can realistically and effectively improve the quality of A-levels. Toughening them up simply won’t work.