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'Current policies are in danger of marginalising the people who need education the most'

Dr Ros Morpeth (pictured, centre), chief executive of the National Extension College and winner of the FE Leader of the Year award at the 2014 TES FE Awards, writes:


The proposal to decouple AS levels from A levels has provoked a flurry of outrage from universities, schools, colleges and awarding bodies. Under the current proposals, scheduled to be introduced in 2015, AS-level results (achieved in one year) will no longer count towards the final A level at the end of two years.

Universities argue that this will mess up their admissions system as the AS level is a much better predictor of final A level grades than teachers’ "guesstimates", whilst teachers are concerned about removing flexibility and narrowing students’ options. 

But among the cacophony of voices there is one that has got lost – that of the distance learning student. At the National Extension College we have around 1800 learners on A and AS level courses, but there are many more in the UK and worldwide studying through other organisations.

They include prisoners, people in the armed services, busy parents, people with disabilities, employers and employees with irregular working patterns and others for whom attending classes in schools or colleges is not an option. My concern is that by removing AS levels from the credit accumulation and transfer scheme (known as CATS) all the good practice built up in the design, delivery and assessment of AS levels will be lost and one of the building blocks for lifelong learning will be removed.  

Teenager Tim Pople, who is studying for AS levels in biology, maths and history, is a good example. Tim has chronic fatigue syndrome (otherwise known as ME) so can’t study full time at school or college. But it’s not just the option of studying from home at his own pace that has enabled him to continue learning. Taking the AS level in one year before going on to the full A level is manageable for him and helps keep his options open.

Cost is another factor for people like Tim. Full-time students in school or college are not normally faced by course and exam fees at level 3 when making decisions about A level study. Distance learning students are. For example, fees can exceed £500 per subject when candidates are required to sit more than one paper. Many find the longer-term commitment of embarking on an  A level course without first studying for an AS level too much of a financial commitment.

What we have in England is an exam system that is based the assumption that people are studying full-time at school or college. But the proposed changes to AS levels are not the only barrier faced by distance learning students. A significant problem is finding an exam centre. Although awarding bodies provide students with lists of exam centres, mostly sixth form colleges and community colleges, there is no guarantee that the centre will accept them as an external candidate – it’s discretionary.

It’s a bit like booking a holiday abroad and then finding that none of the airlines will fly you there. Tim Pople, for instance, had to make nearly a dozen phone calls to schools and colleges near his home in north London before one agreed to take him. For many, sitting an exam involves travelling over 100 miles and an overnight stay – not an option for someone with severe disabilities or single parents. 

Regrettably there are no accurate figures on the total number of distance learning students outside the HE system in the UK, so politicians may regard them as an insignificant minority. But if their ambitions to widen participation and reach “second chance” learners are to have any teeth they need to realise that there is a world beyond the walls of schools and colleges.

So I want to see three things. First, I want to see the AS level retained as a stepping stone towards A level as part of a CATS system.

Second, I want the exam boards to fund access to exam centres for students taking exams independently. This would represent a shift away from the market-driven approach currently in place which forces them to shop around for a centre.

Third, I want to see a change in thinking, so that those making the big decisions about education realise that it is not just about people studying full time in buildings – in schools, colleges and universities.

Education should be opening up opportunities for more people, not slamming the door in their face. Current policies are in danger of marginalising the people who need education the most.

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