66. From the perspective of universities, Stuart
Brown, from Nottingham Medical School, told us that he felt that
there had been "a decline in the knowledge base" of
A level students.
This is a commonly heard criticism and one that it is difficult
to pin down. QCA recently invited an independent panel of advisers
to review the quality assurance arrangements for A level. They
published their findings in January 2002 and concluded that "there
is no scientific way to determine in retrospect whether standards
have been maintained. Therefore, attention should be placed on
ensuring the accuracy, validity and fairness of the system from
67. The science taught and assessed in A level courses
seems to have kept up with the modern world somewhat better than
GCSE. However, Roberts reports that "reductions in the depth
of knowledge required at A-level in favour of breadth and relevance
of study, are seen by some to weaken the usefulness of the A-level
as an indicator of a student's ability to tackle the more complex
and in depth work at degree level".
The view that there has been a loss of depth at A level was also
reflected in comments from schools. A physics teacher at Westminster
School criticised the new Advancing Physics A level developed
by the Institute of Physics. He told us that, while the course
brought interesting contemporary physics into the classroom, he
perceived a loss of depth. Teachers at St Augustine's Catholic
College, Trowbridge said there had been an element of "dumbing
down" in recent curriculum developments, and wanted to see
the curriculum made more relevant to daily life.
68. As only 50-60% of the content of an A level course
is specified by QCA, students may arrive at university having
covered very different material at A level. This applies not only
to students who have been taught different specifications: there
is often the freedom for teachers to select modules from within
a specification. Ian Haines, representing the UK Deans of Science
Committee, told us that he would like to see more common material
between different A level specifications so that he "could
guarantee a certain amount of subject knowledge".
This problem is further exacerbated by the trend for students
to take a combination of science and non-science subjects at A
level. The recent
reforms at AS and A level, described in paragraph 18, are intended
to encourage students to broaden the range of subjects that they
study post-16. Undoubtedly a broad education has its benefits,
but at the same time university science and engineering departments
want depth. Tom Ruxton of the Engineering Professors' Council
told us that "a chartered engineer would need a depth of
science at A level - physics, chemistry, maths".
Where universities place restrictive demands on applicants,
specifying grades in three A level subjects, students are unlikely
to place value on broadening their education.