A-levels are a symptom of our problem

A-levels want the minimum knowledge possible – Pre-Us the maximum effort.

Michael Gove has grabbed the headlines today (at least until someone spots him eating a pasty) by writing to the exam regulator suggesting that Russell Group universities (our top 24) set A-levels, not the exam boards.

As some of you may know, I tutor Classics at the weekend, so I have seen the problem he identifies, that A-levels are insufficient preparation for university. Now, plenty of my pupils have gone off to do Classics at good universities and then done well, but that is despite the A-level, not because of it. That is why lessons with my pupils often wander outside what is prescribed into what interests the pupil, what might stretch their brains.

If one stuck rigidly to the A-level syllabus and didn't show the student that there was a world of fascinating things outside the curriculum and different ways of looking at the Classical world, it wouldn't surprise me if they were unprepared for a degree which needed broader thinking. The syllabus tends to be narrow and the exam questions obvious.

Teaching Pre-Us, however, which are the Cambridge-set equivalent of A-levels, is entirely different. These are demanding, stretching qualifications, where what you have to know is not easily circumscribed: you have to know certain set texts and a minimum amount of grammar, but you can go as far as you like, read whatever you can, study new philosophies and concepts. A-levels want the minimum knowledge possible – Pre-Us the maximum effort.

So why is this? Samira Ahmed had some trenchant tweets earlier:

> Tories privatised Exam Boards,who tell Uni Admissions officers they take out “hard” content because students don't do so well &they lose biz

> Long essays need qualified(higher paid) markers&take longer to mark.Exam boards now go for simpler,quicker&cheaper. Does Gove not know this?

Now that examining is a business, it doesn't pay (literally) to let people fail. Yet as we have seen, when there is no credibility (indeed, no achievement) in something, people are prepared to head to the top, not race for the bottom – go for difficult Pre-Us or the IB rather than A-levels. Once again those who cannot pay (because state schools don't offer Pre-Us) are deprived of a better education.

Finally, Mary Beard made an excellent point in her blog, setting exams in the context of league tables:

'The point is that you can have as challenging a curriculum as you like, but if you have a vicious struggle for league table supremacy and not enough resources in the system . . .  any teacher ambitious for their school and their students (who need A*s to get to the university of their choice) will find some way of maximising their chances (it's the intellectual equivalent of tax avoidance….) (On league tables, see this British Academy study.)'

Tax avoidance, pay for results, low markers' pay – it all comes down to money, not education. Cheap is dear.