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Remedial classes for undergraduates

Universities are being forced to lay on remedial classes for new undergraduates because many are struggling to write essays, use grammar and punctuation and build arguments.

According to a study by Cambridge Assessment too much "teaching to the test" in schools - drilling pupils to pass exams - is a "major factor" in pupils being unprepared for studying at degree level.

As the study was published, Education Secretary Michael Gove confirmed that universities will have a "far greater" role in designing A-levels in the future, amid concerns that the qualifications are failing to prepare teenagers for university. He added he would like to see the new university-led A-levels available for first teaching in September 2014.

In a letter to the exams regulator Ofqual, Mr Gove said that he did not envisage the Department for Education playing a part in developing A-levels in the future. The Conservatives first said they planned to put universities, exam boards and professional societies in charge of creating A-levels before the last general election, and Mr Gove has repeated the policy since taking office two years ago.

In his letter to Glenys Stacey, chair of Ofqual, Mr Gove said that exam boards should be able to work with universities to develop qualifications. In return for greater freedom to design exams, boards will have to provide evidence of which universities have been involved in decision such as subject matter, and style of questions.

Ms Stacey told the BBC's Today programme she welcomed the idea, adding: "This is a Government deciding that universities rather than politicians have the bigger stake in what A-level students study and we agree, and parents and young people should welcome it as well. After all, students do want to hit the ground running when they get to university and getting universities more involved is the right thing to do for young people."

Cambridge Assessment's study, based on an 18-month research programme that included a survey of 633 higher education lecturers and roadshows, found that more than half of lecturers think that undergraduates are unprepared for degree-level study.

Three fifths (60%) said that their universities are providing extra "support" classes for under-prepared first-year students, usually focusing on writing and independent learning. Nearly three quarters (72%) of those questioned said that they have changed their teaching styles for students who are not ready for university study.

Students can have trouble structuring essays, with spelling, punctuation and grammar, referencing and citing sources, building arguments, conducting research, and evaluating information, the study found. But they are most prepared in terms on the ICT skills, ability to work in teams and in presentation and communication skills.

The findings, due to be presented at a conference on Tuesday, say that academics want A-levels to include more advanced content for bright students, cover subjects in more depth and encourage critical thinking, independent study, experimentation and more extensive reading.


From Belfast Telegraph