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A level reforms leave unanswered questions

Next year will see the biggest shake-up of A level teaching and assessment in a generation. Or it might not.

Reform of A levels was promised by the Government in 2012, at the height of the Michael Gove era, in response to perceived “grade inflation” (the phenomenon whereby the number of young people getting the top grades seemed to increase every year) and the accusation that A levels must be getting dumber, rather than it being a result of teaching getting better. The aim – applauded by many in academia – was to return to the rigour of studying for in-depth examinations.

But just as this year’s A level results were announced, the Labour Party insisted that, should it be in government after next year’s general election, it will halt the reforms.

Critically, it has not promised to ditch them completely.

There is one aspect of the overhaul that shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt promised to scrap: the uncoupling of AS levels from the A level qualification.

Under the current reform proposals, which aim to move away from coursework and module assessment to a heavier reliance upon end-of-year examination results, the AS level will no longer count towards an A level, or be a step along the way to an A level.

Pupils may still study AS levels, and the reform proposals envisage that they can largely be “co-taught” alongside A levels, so pupils can progress from them to full A levels as before. But they will stand alone as qualifications from 2015 onwards.

This, according to Labour, would be damaging to social mobility. The Opposition, backed by a study by the LSE into data used by the Government to formulate its proposals has said that, without AS levels, one in five students would be denied the chance to show how far they have improved since studying GCSEs – potentially losing them the attention of universities.

Looking at it another way, Cambridge University has said that AS levels had helped it reduce the number of “mistakes” it made in offering undergraduate places.

Otherwise, Labour has only indicated that it will delay the reforms so it can consult further on them, and to allow time for the changes to GCSEs to settle. But Labour has said it intends to retain some elements of the reform package.

Confusingly for pupils and teachers, not all subjects are due to be reintroduced in their new states next year anyway. It has been acknowledged for some time that maths and further maths will take more work than other subjects to get right, so the new versions of those A levels were not going to be ready for teaching until September 2016.

However, the Government’s consultation over its proposals in 2013 threw up some concerns about the content of the new geography course, so it was announced earlier this year that it, too, will not now be ready for teaching before September 2016.

It remains to be seen what effect this confused picture will have. Some schools and colleges are pledging to continue offering AS levels, both because they see them as useful qualifications in their own right, and also because their pupils find them useful yardsticks on the road to A level.

Other institutions are indicating they will not likely continue taking a distracting break to sit AS levels in the middle of the sixth form years.

Furthermore, universities are giving off mixed signals about their views on AS levels. Some may continue to use AS results to differentiate between prospective students, others will be focused on predicted A level grades alone.

Dr Richard Harvey, Academic Director for Admissions at the University of East Anglia, said: “Oxford and Cambridge prefer AS levels as predictors of ability; for their students they are better predictors than GCSEs. The rest of the university sector is more mixed. For some, AS levels represent good predictors but they worry that they world is filling up with students who know only how to pass exams, rather than having a deep subject knowledge. For others AS level are not particularly good predictors.”

This week, Cambridge University urged schools to continue putting pupils through AS exams at the end of Year 12, with those results serving as a “strong measure of applicants’ recent academic progress”.

Some critics say the reforms will mark a return to too much specialisation too soon, by limiting most pupils to three subjects. A net result of this confusion could be to drive schools towards the International Baccalaureate, a Swiss-based diploma programme taken by almost 5000 UK pupils instead of A levels this year (up 4.4% from last year).

The Cambridge Pre-U exam (up 10.2% from last year with just over 4200 takers) and International A level (designed for schools overseas, with a rise of almost 50% in 2014 to almost 1400 takers) could also benefit from such defections.

Dr Harvey said: “Schools are in a dilemma.  Do they go for a three A level programme which is cheap to teach and educationally defensible?  Do they add spurious AS levels to satisfy Cambridge who, while writing to schools begging them to retain them, simultaneously protest it will make no difference to admission whether students have them or not?  Do they go for a more expensive four A level programme, knowing that it will cause some students to stumble?  A further option is add in something of extra value like an Extended Project (EP) or a stand-alone module from IB. Either of those latter options seems attractive.”

What is the picture in your school, college or university? Please comment below.

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Tue, 31 Jan 2017

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Nick was a reporter for the Eastern Daily Press and its sister weekly titles in Norfolk and Waveney, then served as Media Officer for North Norfolk District Council for 13 years. He now works as a writer and PR and media relations consultant. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, an associate member of the Chartered Management Institute and a member of East Anglian Writers.

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