A government official has hailed the collapse in the number of students taking AS levels as “a positive thing” – despite warnings that it is narrowing pupils’ subject choices and increasing stress.
Rawfiah Choudry, team leader for GCSE and A-level reform at the Department for Education, said the fall in entries was in line with the official aim of reducing the "burden of exams on students".
Speaking at an event in London today, she also insisted the qualification was still "co-teachable" with A levels, meaning AS-level pupils could be taught in the same class as students taking the longer qualification.
However, teachers said the government's changes to AS levels had increased student stress and that continuing to deliver the qualification alongside A levels was a "nightmare".
As part of its education reforms, the government "de-coupled" AS levels from A levels. This has resulted in a slump in the number of students taking the qualification, with the number of AS certificates awarded falling from 1,180,615 certificates in June 2016 to 670,015 in June 2017.
'Reduce the burden'
Today, Ms Choudry said: “In some ways, we see this as a positive thing.
"It is a positive thing because schools and colleges are taking the opportunity that we provided to end the routine external assessment of students in Year 12.”
She added: “We want to reduce the burden of exams on students at the A-level stage. So we’ve not made it essential to do an AS level in order to get your A level.
"We’re trying to make it more accessible for students now to access the in-depth learning maturity that they need at A-level without giving that stress and burden of exams at Year 12 that isn’t necessary in all cases.”
However, Ms Choudry insisted that schools that still wanted to continue offering AS levels could easily do so because the qualification is "co-teachable" with A levels.
“If you have a class of students where some just want to do the AS at Year 12 and some of them actually want to go on to do the A-level, we actually designed the subject content for AS and A-level so that it could be co-taught, so you could teach all of those pupils at the same time,” she said.
But this was disputed by other speakers at the event.
AS levels challenges
Gemma Hewitt, head of A-level products at OCR, said her exam board had found it difficult to make some subjects co-teachable.
"We most definitely did strive for co-teachability. But obviously, that’s something that hasn’t been entirely successful," she said.
She also expressed concern that the de-coupling of AS levels was "starting to reduce the breadth of the curriculum and narrow student options post-16, and may impact on progression to A level”.
Glyn Jones, assistant principal at York College, also challenged whether the two courses could be taught within one classroom.
"I defy anyone to adequately do both of those jobs," he said. "I think that’s an absolute nightmare."
Mr Jones also said that, far from decreasing student stress and reducing the impact of "the exam treadmill", the move to linear A levels had made things worse. "I would put to you that we are then entering them for a bigger and more stressful experience in Year 13.
"I see every year a rising tide of students with significant mental health problems. Terminal examination is not helping that.”
Jane Pratt, director of faculty and Ucas coordinator of The Grammar School at Leeds, said her school had been forced to ditch AS levels because it found teaching them unworkable.
She said: "We found it incredibly difficult to teach a linear model offering AS at the same time. We did try.”