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University involvement in A-level content

This story caught me a little bit surprised this morning, even though I did actually contribute to the consultation exercise a few months back where university lecturers were asked about their views on the preparedness of 1st years students starting university. After a few years in the job, I think that I’ve got a reasonable understanding of how well equipped students are when they start a degree course, and unfortunately, I was almost unanimous in stating that A-levels did not prepare students adequately enough for the demands of university on a whole host of factors, including working independently, motivation, critical thinking, communication skills, and so on. I understand that A-level examinations are now more result-drive than they ever have been, but if A-levels are meant to be a stepping stone to higher academic achievement, then they’re not doing their job effectively.

Students, even those who did well at A-level, come to university lacking a range of vital skills and as such are unable to write effectively, communicate complex ideas or concepts, use IT equipment etc etc. Moreover, they need a good amount of guidance on the material, the importance of secondary reading and the importance of critical thought. The knock-on effect of this is low levels of student satisfaction, engagement or attainment, none of which are especially desirable for the students or the lecturers who teach them. Students will have a range of abilities in these skills, but my own feeling is that A-levels are not doing enough to help students know what is expected of them once they get to university. Universities, however, shouldn’t be the place where we’re telling students how to use a comma or how to add page numbers to a document. And this is something which is common across universities across the UK, including Russell Group and ‘research intensive’ universities. Few universities are immune.

So what is the solution? Well, I think that the exercise I linked to is a great first step. If we want students to be prepared when they come to university, then schools and colleges need to know what it is we’re looking for in a new 1st year student. Moreover, they also need to know the kind of material we cover and let them know what the jump up will be at undergraduate level. Of course, I wouldn’t expect universities to set the curriculum at A-level, nor to set exam questions, but there has to be a better link between the two levels of education and both have to have some understanding of expectations and abilities, otherwise the only people who will be let down by the system will be the students.

The Social Linguist

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