A Level Reforms

Posted on: 07 May 2014
Posted by: Barnaby Lenon

By Barnaby Lenon, Chairman of the Independent Schools Council and Ofqual Board member.

As schools head into AS exam season, Barnaby Lenon explains the changes that are taking place to AS and A-levels…

The reform of A-levels is happening because the Secretary of State believes that current A-levels fall short in two ways:

  1. Modularisation (dividing the A-level into units which can be sat separately) means that students do not learn the subject in as much depth as they did in the past. Those who take modules as early as January of the Lower Sixth will have forgotten this work when they arrive at university 20 months later. Universities have told him that students are used to a culture of resits.
  2. Universities complain that students lack basic knowledge because some A-level syllabuses omit key topics. The main issue is the lack of maths in A-levels such as the sciences and Economics.

Ofqual have also conducted research which has convinced them that some A-level coursework is of limited value, time-consuming relative to its value, and subject to teacher or parent influence.

In order to deal with problem 1) the government has already scrapped January modules. Despite widespread opposition, the Secretary of State has decided that AS marks should not contribute towards the marks of the reformed A-levels. However, the reformed AS-levels will be co-teachable with the A-level.

The current AS/A-level grades will continue.

Reform timetable

The government appointed Mark Smith, Vice-Chancellor of Lancaster University, to create subject-panels from university lecturers to review existing A-level syllabuses. Most syllabuses in most subjects were felt to be satisfactory and these subjects will be revised for first teaching in September 2015, first exam in 2016 (in the case of the AS-level) and 2017 (in the case of the A-level). These subjects are: English Language, English Literature, English Language and Literature, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Computer Science, History, Business Studies, Economics, Sociology, Psychology, Art and Design. Draft syllabuses are being submitted by the exam boards for approval by Ofqual and will be available to schools this autumn.

The subjects to be reformed for first teaching in 2016 are mathematics, further mathematics, modern foreign languages, ancient languages, geography, religious studies, design and technology, drama, dance, music and physical education.

All other subjects will be reformed for first teaching in 2017.

Core maths

The DfE are introducing a new qualification, to be taught from September 2015, for students who achieved a B or C in GCSE Maths and wish to continue with the subject…but are not up to taking the AS-level. It is not yet known how popular this will be.

The issues arising are:

  1. Should our pupils sit the reformed AS levels or not? Many schools will decide that their pupils will sit the reformed AS levels even though they will be examined again on the same topics if they carry the subject through to A-level. This will encourage them to work harder in the Lower Sixth, give them feedback on their progress and help them to decide which subjects to continue to A-level. The results of their AS levels will have to be reported on their UCAS form, which might give them an advantage or be a disadvantage. Universities are unlikely to express a strong preference for or against sitting AS levels.
  2. Will the new AS and A-levels be harder than the unreformed exams? Only slightly, in two ways: There will be no modules, no resits…they are linear courses and the mathematical content of some A-levels will be beefed up. Ofqual will ensure that the grade distribution across all subjects is little altered when the reformed A-level comes in – so do not expect any dramatic shifts.
  3. The reduction in teacher-assessed coursework. In A-level sciences the amount of practical work students must do will be increased, not decreased – at least that is the aim. But the practicals will be largely assessed by exam questions taken at the end of the course. Also in the sciences, equipment manipulation and data-recording skills will be assessed by the teacher and given a pass/fail grade separate from the main A-level grade. Universities may well insist that a student gains a pass in this element as a condition of entry.
  4. The three-year period when there are reformed and unreformed A-levels operating alongside each other: 2015-2018. We do not know if this will have any impact on subject choice.
  5. The reformed GCSEs have a tougher content than the current GCSEs, especially in maths. Pupils taking the reformed GCSEs will not enter the sixth form until 2017/2018/2019. Given that A-levels are meant to build on GCSEs, there will be a case for further reforms to AS/A-levels at this point – to take account of the different prior knowledge of these pupils.
  6. If a Labour government is elected in 2015 they may decide to couple AS to A-level once again. However, this will require a rewrite of the A-level syllabii and will take some years to implement.

About Barnaby Lenon

Barnaby Lenon is chairman of the ISC.