Students deserve better than this shambolic A Level reform

Testing times for future students. Ben Birchall/PA Wire

The teachers of tomorrow should be eager to prepare for “your future, their future”, according to the National College for Teaching and Leadership’s new teacher-training recruitment campaign. Sadly they may find that their students over the age of 16 face very uncertain futures in the light of the coalition government’s most recent shambolic overhaul of A Level exam assessment.

This process is leaving experienced teachers frustrated and students aged 14 to 16 confused about the content of the new courses – some of which are due to start in September 2015 and some in September 2016. Even more significantly, all those involved seem uncertain about how the new format AS levels will be perceived by employers and university admissions tutors.

In recent weeks I have had numerous conversations with teachers who are uncertain about how they should advise Year 11 students about subject choices after their GCSEs. Schools are receiving conflicting advice about the status of AS levels from university admissions officers who, quite rightly, need to have some indication of a student’s predicted examination performance as a basis for an offer decision.

In addition, Labour’s shadow education minister Tristram Hunt has indicated the party would keep standalone AS Levels if they win the next election – adding an extra layer of uncertainty to the reforms.

What we know

We know that the new A Level specifications will be linear in design with all assessments being sat at the end of each two-year course in June of the second year – even if the content and format of some examinations remains unclear and unaccredited. We know that the January examinations have been abolished and that coursework elements of examinations have been minimised.

We also know that AS Level examinations will, once more, become standalone qualifications and students will not be able to count the AS marks awarded towards their final A Level grades. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) proposes that, by 2017, the value of AS levels in its UCAS Tariff, used by some university admissions departments, will have lessened to around 40% of an A Level qualification.

In addition, students who traditionally begin post-16 study with four subjects (and then make a choice which subject they might “drop” at a late stage in the first year of their course) will no longer be afforded the flexibility to exit with an AS in one subject. They will have to designate, from the onset, which subjects are being studied for the two-year A Level course and which are for the one-year AS courses.

These decisions could narrow the range of subjects studied by students in England at an even earlier stage, potentially make A Level study a far riskier enterprise and disadvantage students in the career paths they could be able to opt for later on.

Schools may decide that in some subjects they will teach the AS and the A Level courses alongside one another. For example, the OCR examination board advises: “In some subjects, it may be appropriate for the AS to be designed to be co-taught with the first year of the A Level”. Teaching for two separate examinations simultaneously places an unnecessary burden on students and their teachers.

What do the students think?

The impact of these wide-ranging changes on the learners themselves has not been fully considered. In addition, changes to the implementation timeline are being made very late in the day. For example, the lack of alignment between GCSE and proposed 2016 A Level mathematics courses was said to present particular problems for students who would need to grapple with two very different assessments. In early December, it was announced that these changes would be delayed until 2017.

Students aged 16 to 19, adults returning to A Level education and those who have recently experienced the assessment processes, should have had a voice.

Delays to the approval of some examination boards’ subject specifications appear to have been caused by deep governmental interference in subject content, such as text selection in subjects such as English literature, and assessment processes.

This is symptomatic of a lack of trust in the teaching profession and a failure to acknowledge the need for examinations which are appropriate for 21st-century learners. An apparent desire to take the so-called “gold standard” of A Level assessment back to a mythical golden age has wrought confusion for students at a crucial time in their education. They deserve much better.


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