The slow death of the AS-Level

The wait is over. Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

A record number of 420,000 students had already secured a place at university on August 18, the day the A-Level results came out. But amid the joy and disappointment on display, the results show how a short-lived stalwart of the examination landscape is slowly fading away. The number of students taking AS-Levels – a one-year qualification that used to count towards 50% of a full A-Level – has fallen sharply by 13.7% between 2015 and 2016.

AS-Levels allowed students, teachers and universities to get an insight into eventual A-Level performance. Students could also indulge in broadening their post-16 diet, taking, say mathematics, biology, chemistry and French. And they had something to show for their first year’s efforts. Those options are now closing to young people.

Teething problems

The backdrop to this is an exam system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland that has been under seemingly continual reform in the first decade of the 21st century. It began with a set of reforms to school-leaving exams called Curriculum 2000, introduced by the then-Labour government in 2000-2002. The aim was to encourage more 16- to 19-year-olds to study more subjects, shifting from an average of two A-Levels to three, and adding a fourth subject by way of an additional exam taken in their penultimate year of school – the AS-level.

This was part of a plan to encourage more students to aim for higher education as well as to discourage 17-year-olds from dropping out at the end of the first year of sixth form. But if they did drop out, at least they would leave with some meaningful qualifications, because AS-Levels were one-year courses – a qualification in their own right. AS and A-Levels also became fully modular, with assessments done at the end of individual units, rather than all or nothing in the last year of school.

Once Curriculum 2000 was in place, a majority of students took at least four AS subjects. At first, some teachers were unsure of what the AS standard was since exams at the end of the first year were new. Teaching time seemed truncated because schools concentrated on exam preparation after only two terms and the introduction of units meant that students could be sitting as many as 12 exams during their first year.

Soon teachers felt more confident about the AS – in a 2003 survey (which is no longer accessible) run by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, 81% of teachers said they were confident that they knew the standard required for the AS, although many of them remained concerned by the amount of external assessment. New AS and A-Levels introduced in 2008 largely fixed that problem as the A-Level qualification now had only four units (and the AS two).

AS-Levels on the decline

Now, in the summer of 2016 and we are witnessing all of those things changing. The Coalition and Conservative governments have abolished qualifications examined in units in what they claim to be an effort to increase rigour and raise standards. New, reformed A-Levels are being phased in, and some will be examined for the first time in 2017.

Although AS levels will still exist and are also being phased in – some were taught and examined this academic year – they will no longer count towards the overall A-Level, which will be examined only at the end of the second year. The reformed AS is an entirely separate qualification and fewer students are taking it, as we see by this summer’s results and the graph below shows.

Overall entries for biology have decreased by almost 17%, while English is down by 23%. The decreases are even higher among those 17 years of age and under (excluding older learners who are taking AS-Levels), with a 30% decrease in entries for English for this cohort.

While we may not have a definitive answer as to why the decreases have happened, I would venture to guess that if AS outcomes no longer count toward A-Level outcomes, offering these qualifications becomes a luxury for schools and colleges, who have to concentrate their efforts on preparing students for the full A-Level.

I would not be surprised if a few years down the line the AS disappears almost entirely along with insight into how students are progressing with their studies, a broader curriculum and, yes, a fallback if things don’t work out at the end of year one.