Skip to Content


Large Image
Final Exam by dcJohn on flickr

Different Responses to A level shake up

The Government’s ongoing reform of secondary qualifications has left teachers unable to plan for next year, and universities trying to find ways to select their new intakes.

Only 66 of the 156 (42 %) of GCSE and A level courses due to be taught from this September were approved by early March, according to the Telegraph (and in the middle of January just 16 of the 156 specifications had been signed off, while 14 of 21 subjects had no approved specification at all).

In the midst of this uncertainty, schools have been making their own decisions about what programmes they should offer to maximise their students’ chances.

EPQ’s stock rises

As schools and higher education struggle to determine what A levels pupils need if they want to do a degree, the Extended Project Qualification is proving popular as a way to give their students an edge, and is finding favour with university admissions offices.

The reform means that AS levels are being uncoupled from A levels, meaning the AS is now no longer halfway to an A level and the new, standalone AS cannot simply be taught as the first year of an A level subject. Indeed, the AS doesn’t even count as half an A level, since Ofqual decided it was “less demanding” – it now counts for 40% of an A level.

Since 2000, pupils could choose four subjects in the first year of sixth form and get AS levels in all four, then continue three of them with “A2” modules in the final year, combing the AS and A2 marks to arrive at three full A levels. They would have the fourth subject at AS level as a potential way to differentiate them from other students when applying to university.

The new AS level, however, is examined and marked differently and there is no A* grade available. The EPQ, on the other hand, is marked to A level standard meaning UCAS counts it as worth half an A level – 70 points for an A* towards a pupil’s UCAS tariff – which the AS cannot reach.

The Which? University guide says: “The general message from universities is that they really like the EPQ.”

The University of East Anglia (UEA) is one institution that sees the EPQ as a useful indicator amid the chaos of reform. In an article for independent schools’ magazine Conference and Common Room this spring, Professor Richard Harvey, Academic Director of Admissions at the UEA, wrote: “We have been pondering how best to incorporate the EPQ in our offers… [To] make the most of our teaching students need to be intellectually curious and self-motivated and we feel the EPQ really encourages that. So not only do we count the EPQ but, where possible, we will make a lower offer to students holding an EPQ.”

Paul Teulon, Director of Admissions at King’s College, London, told UniBox before Christmas that King’s would not take the same approach as UEA. He said: “King’s hasn’t used the AS in the process anyway because you don’t have it for all applicants. [By using it] you could be building in a bias.

“The EPQ is a great qualification but it’s about transition not admission. King’s isn’t going down that route because it would disadvantage some students. We don’t want to disadvantage a student because of a decision by their institution.

“With a large number of applicants you need entry requirements that are fair and appropriate.”
(The EPQ is used at King’s, Mr Teulon noted, in supporting applications for highly competitive medical and dental degrees: the EPQ has been included in the process for students who could not offer a fourth AS as well as three AS/A2 results.)

The Cambridge bombshell – entrance exams

Cambridge announced in February that it is introducing entrance exams for this year’s applicants. In a letter to UK schools and colleges Dr Sam Lucy, Director of Admissions for the Cambridge Colleges, said: “This move is a result of responding to teacher and student feedback, a desire to harmonise and simplify our existing use of written assessments and a need to develop new ways to maintain the effectiveness and fairness of our admissions system during ongoing qualification reform.”

Cambridge may not be the only one to follow this route. According to the Times Higher Education, Peter Hamilton, headmaster of The Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School in Hertfordshire, said that leading higher education institutions were likely to follow the University of Cambridge in introducing written admissions tests as a result of the decoupling of A levels and AS levels. (Registration/paywall).

Entrance tests would be a way for admissions tutors to avoid having to rely on schools’ own assessments of their pupils, he said, which would be “of varying quality”.

In his magazine article, Prof Harvey also said the International Baccalaureate or IB is a possible answer: “The IB is popular at the University of East Anglia and, from a school’s perspective, jumping sideways out of the politicised

British curriculum must feel very attractive. But what for schools that cannot find the resources for IB?”

Diplomas, too, could be offered to sixth-formers to help differentiate them at uni application time.

But with such a range of qualifications being offered, there is a danger that students will have very different approaches to learning.

Peter Hamilton, speaking at an event on admissions organised by the Westminster Higher Education Forum, said that some would still be following modular A levels of the existing style while others would be taking linear courses assessed at the end of two years; and a further group might hold other qualifications such as the Pre-U diploma.

Keep up to date with UCAS resources

For now, the only certainty is uncertainty and it’s a matter of keeping a close eye on what universities are offering applicants.

UCAS has a section on its website about qualification reform, with many resources including a report (published in January 2016) on the different approaches taken by schools in 2015/16 to the qualifications they offer.

Importantly, UCAS is keeping a list of statements published by HE providers on how they will accommodate qualification reform.

See that here: www.ucas.com/advisers/guides-and-resources/qualification-reform

What is your school offering?

If you are in university admissions, how is your uni changing its admissions and offers as a result of the reform?

Let us know in the comments below or Tweet @the_UniBox

Posted by Nicholas Manthorpe on Fri, 10 Feb 2017



comments powered by Disqus

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.

View Profile