Those teenagers who receive their A-level results on August 13 are the first cohort of young people living through a wave of changes to the UK’s school exam system. These reforms, which started under the former secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, were aimed to embed what he termed “the art of deep thought” into post-16 education.
Although the majority of the reforms have not yet been introduced in schools and sixth form colleges, 2015’s school-leavers are the first who have not been able to take multiple resits of their exams as part of a move to make the qualifications more “linear”.
The curriculum reforms came as result of a clarion call for greater rigour within the examinations system to prove that education standards are not slipping. But they have also raised concerns about the impact that high-stakes tests are having on the lives of young people, often portrayed as over-tested and stressed.
Moving away from modules
The A-level structure that Gove inherited from the Labour government when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010 included modular syllabuses with examinations twice each year, in January and May/June. Young people were able to select and study four or five subjects in Year 12 (their penultimate year at school) to AS-level.
Then, depending upon the results, they could drop some subjects and focus only on those in which they were succeeding in Year 13 by sitting A2 modules, making up a full A-level in three or four subjects. They could also re-sit examinations an unlimited number of times and most syllabuses contained a combination of externally marked examinations and teacher-marked coursework.
Criticisms levelled at the A-levels challenged these approaches to learning and testing. Reports from Ofqual cited a lot of “teaching to the test”. An increasingly narrow curriculum focus and students’ poor subject knowledge were also seen as indications of weaknesses in assessing their learning.
Armed with such evidence, the coalition government’s reforms to the A-level system were inevitable and set in motion swiftly after they were announced by Gove in January 2013. The government’s goal was to reintroduce linear qualifications – involving exams taken at the end of the two-year A-level programme – and it encouraged interim measures to help bring that into effect.
In November 2012, Ofqual announced the abolition of January examinations in order to reduce concerns about perpetual exam preparation and the effects of multiple resitting. For example, in 2010, 74% of young people taking A-level mathematics resat at least one paper. The January exams were abolished from January 2014, meaning that the school-leavers of 2015 will be the first who are not able to take either their AS or A2 modules in January and then resit them again in May or June.
Bigger changes to come
A further change to the A-levels that affects teachers’ practice is the significant reduction in coursework – formerly, this made substantial contributions, often greater than or equal to 40% of over-all grades. From September 2015 onwards, coursework will be worth just 20% in some subjects such as English and there will be none at all in sciences, economics, sociology, psychology and business studies.
Another reform, coming into force in September 2015, has been to separate or “decouple” the AS and A-level qualifications so that each would be awarded as a unique entity. The intention here is to have just one set of examinations for AS and another for A-level; the two parts will become separate qualifications and A-level examinations will cover the entire two-year programme of Years 12 and 13.
This move has been contentious – Ofqual’s 2015 Annual Review found that 62% of head teachers surveyed believe that the disadvantages of decoupling – effectively removing AS levels – will outweigh the advantages.
From this September, students will also begin learning new revised content for decoupled A-levels in certain subjects, including chemistry, biology, physics, English language and English literature. Further revised subject content will be introduced in 2016 and 2017.
Ofqual’s 2015 survey of the perceptions of A-levels seems to suggest there are mixed reactions to Gove’s reforms. A-levels are still perceived as a trusted qualification by the majority of young people, parents, teachers and potential employers. The reforms to the qualifications, particularly the “reduction in teacher assessment in some A-level subjects” were viewed positively.
However, the move to linear assessment and the abolition of AS-levels is unpopular with more than half of all headteachers (52%) and a significant number of teachers (46%). Parents, employers and the general public were uncertain about the consequence of this change.
A-levels were overdue for some kind of revision as it had been eight to ten years since most subjects were thoroughly reviewed or updated. Qualifications, like a fine cheese, have a shelf life too and changes and updates are a part of reliable, rigorous assessment practice.
The reforms to qualifications made on Gove’s watch may prove positive: with less concentration on endless examination preparation students may well be able to cultivate that deep thought necessary to engage in a more substantive way with all of their subjects.