Schools seek to bypass `chaotic' A-level reform

Ucas chief fears changes may demotivate pupils and hurt results
16th January 2015, 12:00am


Schools seek to bypass `chaotic' A-level reform

Significant numbers of schools plan to ignore a key element of the government's controversial A-level reforms by continuing to make AS-levels a central part of the timetable, a poll suggests.

Changes being phased in from September will mean that AS-levels no longer count towards final A-level grades, in a move designed to reduce the number of exams taken in sixth form. Ministers hope this will create more time for "deep learning".

But a poll of almost 500 schools by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) finds that two-thirds of secondaries will continue to use AS-levels in some reformed subjects in September.

Nearly a quarter of respondents said the changes would lead to fewer young people taking A-levels. "It is highly likely that students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be put off," one school said. "The AS has acted as a great confidence boost."

The findings come as Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, warns that the government's favoured linear model of A-levels, where exams come at the end of a two-year course, could narrow the curriculum, demotivate students and depress results.

Writing for the TES website, she argues that the "broadening of the curriculum and the chance for pupils to try out new subjects without penalty" has been a "standout success" of the existing structure. Reverting to a linear model could mean going back to the old three-A-level system, which she fears could lead to the "majority of students" gaining worse grades "simply from making the wrong choices of subjects".

The alternative would be for students to "start four A-levels and potentially drop one of them halfway through, with nothing to show after a year of study", she writes. "I can't imagine many pupils being highly motivated to study for an exam in their weakest subject when it takes them out of their stronger subjects for a period of revision and examination time."

The warnings follow widespread criticism of the decision to "decouple" AS-levels from A-levels. Bodies including the University of Cambridge and the Labour Party have condemned the move, and the latter has pledged to reverse the reform if it wins this year's general election.

Ms Curnock Cook also notes that not entering pupils for AS-levels would allow for an extra half-term of teaching and give schools greater freedom in organising A-level syllabuses. But most of the 469 schools that responded to the Ucas survey do not want to exercise that freedom, the results suggest.

More than half the respondents will offer AS-levels in all reformed A-level subjects from this September; two-thirds (66 per cent) will offer AS-levels in at least some reformed subjects. A further 18 per cent still do not know what they will do.

When schools were asked for their plans for September 2017, when all subjects will have been reformed, the most popular decision (17 per cent of schools) was for students to follow the current system of choosing AS-levels in four subjects before opting for A-levels in three. Another 21 per cent of schools do not yet know what they will do.

Carl Sugden, headteacher of King James's School in Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, described the A-level reforms as "chaotic" (see panel, below).

Another school that responded to the Ucas survey said: "The most difficult thing for schools is trying to make decisions with so little information from the government.the funding implications are huge."

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the "overwhelming majority" of headteachers would rather continue with the present system, where AS-levels contribute to A-levels. But continuing to offer AS-levels after the reforms would be "a very expensive option when post-16 funding is under enormous pressure", he added.

The University of Cambridge recently encouraged applicants to take AS-levels "in at least three, and preferably four, subjects, whether reformed or not, at the end of Year 12".

Ms Curnock Cook said schools wanted all universities to explain how they would operate admissions when reformed and unreformed A-levels and GCSEs existed side by side, and when students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were using different qualifications with the same name.

A Department for Education spokesman said decoupling AS- and A-levels would end the "routine" of external assessment at the end of Year 12. "Removing this unnecessary burden from teachers and students means young people will have more time to study the fundamental concepts of a subject, rather than sit through an endless treadmill of exams," he added.

Read Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook's full article at tesconnect.comucas

`Life is not a linear system with an exam at the end'

Carl Sugden, headteacher of King James's School in Knaresborough, wants AS-levels to continue to contribute towards A-levels. He says most North Yorkshire secondary schools agree.

The headteacher rejects the government's main justification for the new linear structure - that reducing AS-level exams is necessary to allow "deep understanding".

"Life is not a linear system with an exam at the end," Mr Sugden says. "Life is modular and I think there are strengths in modular learning and being able to take different units in your study and specialise a bit more in Year 13.

"Part of the reason [the existing structure] was brought in was to create more breadth at A-level, and if we persist down this route we will take some of that away."

Mr Sugden describes the phased A-level reforms starting in September as "chaotic", adding: "The reason it is so difficult for parents and students to understand is that they could potentially be embarking on reformed and unreformed A-levels at the same time.

"The other reason it is chaotic is that we are coming up to a general election and two of the main political parties have got different policies on this, with one saying they are decoupling and the other saying they will recouple."

Ideally, Mr Sugden would like to continue advising students to take four AS-levels and then narrow down to three A-levels, but that will depend on the election result and the financial implications. "Sixth-form funding has, year-on-year, now gone down considerably," he says. "All of us are struggling to balance the books."

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