'What will university involvement look like and how exactly will it work?' This is one of big questions that arose out of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove's announcement that exam boards need to involve universities in designing A-Levels.
In my view, as a university lecturer, it is sensible to involve universities in schools exam reform. Currently most examiners are teachers, or retired teachers, who have often been involved with examining for many years. Of course, this must continue - their perspective of teaching in the classroom and their appreciation of the level of understanding of broad cross-sections of students is absolutely invaluable. However, with the increasing pressures on their time, it is hard for teachers to stay on top of the latest developments in their fields in addition to preparing and giving lessons. It is true that there are courses now run by many universities to help update teachers' knowledge, but when it comes to undergraduate study, the university lecturers are in the best position to know what is relevant and topical in their particular subjects.
Getting the level of involvement right is the key challenge. This means balancing any involvement from universities with ongoing engagement from schools to create collaboration between universities, schools, examination boards and, where appropriate, relevant learned societies such as, in my case, the Royal Society of Chemistry. This approach was taken when developing Cambridge Pre-U, which relied on the forging of strong, productive, relationships with teachers.
Many years ago when I was first asked to look at an A-level syllabus and make recommendations, I was told that my recommendations could not be implemented because the topics would not be in the existing textbooks. We could, therefore, only remove things from the existing syllabus, not add to it. This approach led to a worrying change in the science syllabuses, which has included the gradual exclusion of maths. In my view it is not possible to study the physical sciences at university without some understanding of mathematics. We now risk giving students the impression that it is not necessary to study maths for the sciences. This can lead to a nasty shock at university. A thorough look at what is on the syllabus and why it is there is required - input from universities in this respect would be particularly valuable.
Here is an example of how this can work. I teach chemistry at the University of Cambridge. The chemistry A level syllabus included the analytical topic of nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). For what can only now be historical reasons, it is seen as important to teach a type of NMR known as proton NMR. This is a subject that, at the university, we feel is better left to the second year to teach because it rapidly becomes so complicated. Instead, we teach other variations to the first-year students, notably carbon-NMR. This is much simpler to grasp, and introduces the concepts necessary to properly understand the subject.
In contrast, trying to teach the more complicated proton NMR in classroom is ambitious to say the least. The examples have to be artificially simplified and only a handful of molecules have a basic enough structure for the students (and teachers) to cope with.
Taking this into account, when designing Cambridge Pre-U, we included carbon-NMR which is simpler to understand, but also means more interesting, real-life molecules can actually be analysed using it, even by weaker students. Why was this topic not introduced earlier? Because it has not been routinely available for as long as proton NMR so those responsible for the different syllabuses had not realised how routine it had become, and how easy it is to teach.
The development of Cambridge Pre-U was done in partnership with schools. It gives students a great understanding of their subject and prepares them for continued study in their chosen areas. "If all the students came here knowing the content of this course, we would not have to teach our first year," commented one of my colleagues at University of Cambridge, only slightly tongue-in-cheek!
This is, of course, not the case - nor is it what Cambridge Pre-U is about. It is about providing a sound educational course that is still accessible to all students of varying ability, giving them the skills to truly understand their chosen subjects and further develop these skills if they choose to go on to university. This can only be accomplished with the cooperation of all parties involved - teachers, universities and exam boards.
So what's the lesson for Gove? Involve academics but remember we're one of a number of voices and the real key is to get everyone working together to develop qualifications that allow our students to be truly fit for the future.
Dr Peter Wothers is a chemist at the University of Cambridge and Director of Studies at St Catharine's College.