Academics and teachers, have you met?

22 April 2012
The Times Educational Supplement
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Reform would be smoother and more effective if you worked together, says Francis Gilbert

Earlier this month, education secretary Michael Gove said that top academics should reform our A-level system, implying that only the elite Russell Group universities can stop the chronic “dumbing down” going on in our sixth forms. His announcement was on top of a survey of academics that found more than half think current undergraduates can’t write or think properly.

But before we blame schools for churning out incapable students or rip up our current A-level system, a few important points need to be considered. First, scholars are always moaning about students. In 1879, a Harvard professor, Adams Sherman Hill, complained that entrants to his august university were “deformed by absolute illiteracy”. Plus ca change? Second, A levels have had a major overhaul not once, but twice since the beginning of the millennium.

That said, if there are going to be yet more changes, right now might be a good time to reflect upon the key question: what exactly are A levels for? Next year, the school leaving age will rise to 18. Does this mean that A levels will become the equivalent of the school leaving certificate? Are they a preparation for university, for work or for life in general?

There is a real worry that if academics are solely in charge of setting A levels, they may well become too narrow. At the moment, the best A levels contain a healthy mixture of the academic and the practical. Thus they can appeal to would-be undergraduates and to the less academically inclined.

In recent years, I have been lucky enough to work both as an A-level teacher and a visiting lecturer at a couple of universities. The experience has been illuminating. Increasingly, it has struck me that both sectors could learn more from each other. Yes, I certainly think that A levels could better prepare students for university than they do now, but this could be done with relative ease and without tearing up the current A levels. Making the coursework requirements for essays more stringent would be helpful; they would become more like dissertations, properly referenced and showing evidence of wider independent reading.

Equally, universities could learn quite a bit from schools; from where we have gone wrong – and right. It’s obvious to me that the “blame the teacher” culture that has existed in schools for years is now invading the halls of academia: fee-paying students are demanding top marks even if they are below par; a worksheet that explains everything is expected as a matter of course; deadlines are not taken seriously. Teachers are battling valiantly against this nonsense, but many academics are like rabbits in the headlights when confronted with such consumerist laziness; they are not used to imposing strict rules.

There is some evidence that universities could learn from schools regarding pedagogy. Many universities are still stuck on fairly Victorian models of learning: lectures, where students passively take notes, are still the cornerstone of many departments. It strikes me that things like lectures could easily be put on the internet, freeing up time for academics to engage more with their students, doing the sorts of things that A-level teachers do as a matter of course: group work, debates, role plays, simulations and so on. The Higher Education Academy has recently funded research into this indicating that many universities could sharpen the quality of their teaching.

The truth is that teaching is often at the bottom of academics’ list of priorities because they are largely judged on the quality of their research. As such, news last week that teachers from top independents and maintained secondaries may soon be sharing their successful teaching techniques with university lecturers should be welcomed. Schools and universities shouldn’t be lecturing each other, but they should certainly be having a conversation.

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