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Expert Comment: Will A-level reform narrow pupil choice?

Desks Monday 28 January 2013

Dr Sarah Askey, Lecturer in Teacher Education at Hope, looks at government plans to reform post-GCSE study.

Education Secretary Michael Gove believes that the “primary purpose of A-levels is to prepare students for degree level study” and therefore “It is of paramount importance that that new A-levels command the respect of leading universities.” I agree that for students with intentions of attending university, a clearer and better of preparation for further study is desirable. But I would argue that although universities are very clear about what they want from A-level students on starting their degrees, they have little appreciation for the demands and progression of students to these courses from GCSE study beyond their own experiences. 

In most secondary schools, students find the start of A-level study demanding, largely as we ask far more independent learning from them than they traditionally experience at GCSE. This is in part due to the constraints and pressures teachers experience in ‘performing’ for league tables. There is currently a huge pressure on schools to work differently to increase pupil autonomy and continually improve examination performance. While pupil learning is at the heart of this, as individuals, developing their learning skills becomes diminished by the drive for continued school improvement and examination results. Different approaches in private schools, including the use of the linear assessment of iGCSE or International Baccalaureate qualifications may be a large contributory factor in their need to extend the current A-level and raise the demand for their students, which better prepares them to compete for top university places.

In his letter to Glenys Stacey, chief executive of the exams regulator Ofqual, he is critical of the modular and ‘bite size’ approach to assessment that does set our qualification at this level apart from other countries. Following recent changes already implemented for GCSE, the return to linear assessment at the end of a two year A level course, is a return to pre Curriculum 2000 structures, the AS examination will remain, but as a separate standalone qualification rather than a benchmarking step towards the full qualification.  While this may be seen as reducing the breadth of student choice, it does have its advantages. I, like many of the teachers who participated in the Ofqual consultation, think that students mature dramatically throughout an A level course and are far more able to reflect and synthesize information at the end of the A level than they are as AS level, with students typically improving their grades from year 1 to 2 as a result. However, the modular course does reduce the content to be learned and reproduced in examinations, potentially raising performance; increases the content that is examined throughout a course; and increases student confidence. It does however, have opposing detrimental effects, most notably on the teaching time dedicated to examination preparation rather than learning; and potentially raising dropout rates on tougher, more academic courses, including mathematics and the sciences. 

Removal of AS examinations will undoubtedly increase the teaching time available to enhance and extend skills and understanding, especially with subjects such as science where practical assessment is necessary. We do assess continually and I am in no doubt that this assessment at GCSE and A-level, motivated by performance in league tables, has engulfed schools to the detriment of quality learning experiences. I also believe that external modular assessment has deskilled teachers in assessing and addressing the progress of their own students as they prefer to rely on the examination results produced by awarding bodies.

I do not see the separation of AS and A Levels as reducing choice as students will be able to choose the level and demand of study in a number of subjects over two years. More able students can complete AS in a year and subsequently complete additional courses in a two year period giving a broader portfolio of qualifications, or choose to follow the more demanding A Level courses only. However, one of the biggest challenges facing Ofqual and their University advisory panel in constructing the new A and AS level specifications is the degree of overlap and integration of the two courses within the same subject. Will a student be able to change their course of study and transfer from AS to A Level courses without repeating a year?

There are two factors contributing to the A-level debate and dissatisfaction of Universities with current courses. Firstly the suitability of the subject content and skills taught; and secondly the nature of assessment which, in addition to the modular structure, includes both the demand and skills required by the questions.  The government argues that modular assessment and too many re-sit opportunities reduces demand, and inflates grades by giving students multiple opportunities to ‘get it right’. Indeed, they returned to linear assessment at GCSE in September 2012, and it therefore was no surprise that A-level followed suit.  Similarly, with a new National Curriculum due this year which will impact GCSE, it is logical and necessary that A level is reviewed to ensure progression, however, university involvement in this process is a new approach which may have significant implications for both the subject content and skill development.

All current GCSE and A-Level specifications include the subject knowledge and skills indicative of that qualification.  However, the realities at the ‘chalk face’ mean that skills are a second thought and filling minds with the knowledge to succeed in examinations is the primary focus.  It is my opinion that the change to linear assessment should generate teaching time to return to skill development and increase the ability of students to think and learn more independently; apply and synthesize information more readily; and make links between aspects of the subject curriculum and beyond.

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