Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Gove lays a trap for the Russell Group

It has long been clear to most observers that Michael Gove is not truly a Conservative, but instead a leftist agent provocateur determined to heighten the contradictions inherent in Conservative educational policy until the whole structure collapses. If anyone had doubted this before, then his proposal to curry favour amongst the Tory grassroots by reversing the Thatcher government's key school reform surely marks the point at which he threw the mask aside.

At a slightly earlier stage, when he was still trying to show a little subtlety, Gove came up with the idea of getting Russell Group universities to quality-assure A-levels. You might have thought that this would be a benefit to elite institutions, which would be able to shape curricula to reflect their own requirements, and address the issues of under-preparation that they have often complained about. The publication of Ofqual's consultation shows how far adrift you were if you were thinking like that.

73.   [W]e need assurances of an appropriate level of engagement and that, as far as is possible, all universities value all A levels equally. Therefore we propose that we will require two types of evidence:
a. First, we will require evidence that there has been general engagement at a subject level. The exam boards may set up or use existing subject groups, development committees or forums to inform the development of specifications (where no core content has been agreed).
b. We will also require more formal sign-off from a number of respected universities who are willing for their institutions to publicly endorse a qualification. In his letter to us in March 2012, the Secretary of State suggested that these should be ‘our best, research intensive universities such as those represented by the Russell Group’. It is difficult for us, and indeed the higher education sector, to identify definitively these universities, which may vary by subject. Therefore we will work with universities to decide who this should be. The details of this may depend on the evidence of engagement above, but we expect that these specific endorsements at institution level will be published in each exam board’s specification.

74. Therefore we propose the following condition setting out the minimum evidence of support that we will need:

Condition 8 – Evidence of support
An awarding organisation must be able to demonstrate, through the publication of formal evidence, that for each GCE qualification which it makes available or proposes to make available it:
  • has had significant and relevant subject engagement in the content and design from Higher Education and learned societies;
  • has the support* of at least 20 UK universities, at least 12 of which are respected in the specific field of study and/or from those deemed to be leading research institutions; and
  • has been developed in consultation with schools and/or colleges to ensure that the qualification is manageable for successful delivery and, where appropriate, in consultation with employers.
* This support must indicate that those universities:
  • endorse the qualification, in particular its content, as suitable for progression to UK Higher Education courses in that subject or related subjects; and
  • are satisfied that the qualification should present no barriers to equal access for students to the full range of universities.

If you look carefully, you will see two conditions that it will be virtually impossible for any Russell Group institution (still less 12 of them) to sign up to:

  •   all universities value all A levels equally; and
  •   [these A levels] present no barriers to equal access for students to the full range of universities
On the contrary, the current position of the Russell Group is that certain A-level subjects present very serious barriers to access, and students who have the misfortune to have studied more than one of them cannot expect entry to a prestigious institution. More 'traditional and theoretical' subjects like History are OK, whilst more 'vocational and practical' ones like Media Studies are not. (Having as PhD in history, and medieval administrative history at that, I am particularly well placed to appreciate the irony of labelling this a 'theoretical' subject.)

But the Russell Group are not so easily fooled as the Daily Mail. In fact they have managed to come up with an excuse for opting out of this arrangement that drips with even more irony than Gove's original proposal: The time of their staff is too precious to waste in meetings.

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