Another major education reform was announced this week in the media. On Wednesday plans to make major changes to A Levels were announced by the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. This came about as a result of a consultation initiated by the Secretary of State on the future of A Levels. The result of this has been a decision by the government to reshape both AS Levels and A Levels. The first thing to note is that this will not affect anyone currently in the sixth form – it is current year 9 students who will be the first to experience the planned changes, and then only in a limited range of subjects, as the plans are to reshape the so-called facilitating subjects (English, mathematics, sciences, languages, history and geography) ahead of the others.
At the moment the AS Level is the first, easier, half of the A Level, and is assessed through an exam taken at the end of year 12. This exam gives students a qualification in its own right, but if they continue the subject for a further year through year 13 and take the so called ‘A2’ the two exams together, AS and A2, form an A Level.
The proposal is to make A Levels two year ‘linear’ courses, not broken into two halves so with no mid-course staging. AS would then be a totally separate one year course with an exam at the end, made tougher than the current AS. Students could take either an AS or an A Level, but would not need to do an AS first in order to get an A Level, as now.
The argument in favour of this reform is that under the current system sixth form courses are too dominated by exams, because teachers have to start preparing students for the AS almost as soon as they start the course in September of year 12. This, it is felt, leads to lots of rehearsed and potentially shallow learning. If the exam were two years away from the start of the course, it would be possible to make the course less exam dominated and develop learning in a fuller and deeper way.
On the other hand, for many students breaking the A level course into two bite sized chunks makes it feel more manageable, and they have the opportunity to get the first half ‘under their belt’ by the end of year 12, which may improve motivation and give students a sense of achievement earlier on in the course. Moreover, many or most university courses are structured in a modular way so this style of assessment is good training for the future. Universities also tend to like AS Levels as they are, because students have some actual grades to put on their UCAS application forms when they apply to university in autumn of year 13, which enables universities so see more accurately the level at which they are achieving.
My own view is that, while I understand and have sympathy for the arguments for a less exam dominated sixth form, and more opportunity to develop depth and breadth in learning, I think the current system has a lot to commend it and with some relatively modest adjustments could be improved further. Already January exams are being removed, which is a step in the right direction. We could remove the option for resits, and we could make the content more robust at the top end to provide more stretch there. We could also ensure that the exams for A2 contained some material which covered the whole AS/A2 spread so students could not simply forget what they had covered in AS. But I think the idea of gaining part of the qualification at the end of year 12 is good, motivating and helpful for everyone, not least students and universities.
The UK has about 37% of young people going to university, which is one of the lowest figures in Europe. There is a recognition that this needs to rise further if we are to have a work force which is well educated enough to compete with these other countries. My fear would be that by making A Levels seem more inaccessible we will put young people off taking them and this will impact negatively on university progression rates, already under pressure from a range of other factors, not least the cost. So I would urge caution in this area, and think we need to stop and think hard before we ditch a system which has many advantages and which could easily be adjusted to meet new needs.