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'The government must reverse the terrible decision of decoupling AS and A-levels'

Joe Vinson, vice president (further education) at the National Union of Students, writes: 

Most teenagers will now have a good idea of what their next move will be after they opened their A-level results two weeks ago to learn their fate.

My own A-level results day actually wasn’t so long ago and I know first-hand how important it is to have flexibility when studying. As a victim of our country’s appalling careers advice service for young people, I had no idea what I wanted to do after college, let alone what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So, I took a mixture of AS levels: biology, chemistry, law and politics.

As time went on it became clear to me through my two assessments in my first year that chemistry was no longer for me. But I was lucky because I was allowed to start a new AS level in my second year, leave the woes of chemistry behind, and go on to achieve an A in not just Sociology AS level, but A-level too.

None of this would have been possible under the proposed reforms, leaving me with grades that didn’t reflect my true ability. Instead I would have been labelled as a failure because one of my A-levels would have been “below par”. And I’m not alone; thousands of students every year decide their initial subject choice at 16 wasn’t right for them. They simply make a small change to their choices which can make a big change to their prospects.

This is why I’m really concerned about the proposed changes to A-levels, which I believe will have a detrimental effect to many people achieving their full potential. It’s why the National Union of Students (NUS) has launched a campaign to save the AS level.

The current AS level counts for 50 per cent of a students’ final grade but under the government’s reforms, the new AS level will be a standalone qualification, which will not contribute to an A-level grade. Assessments will take place, wherever possible, at the end of the course by exam.

Learning for two years solid and then being assessed at the end with no testing in between is incredibly stressful. It will be detrimental to many students who are perfectly able to understand and apply knowledge, but who struggle with anxiety when under pressure.

I’m sick of hearing that it’s OK to throw 18-year-olds in at the deep end, stretching them to breaking point so they can churn out what they’ve been taught over the last two years. Exams will become a feat of memory recall, something completely unreliable and unrepresentative of a student’s true abilities.

The AS level is also a great way for students and their tutors to be able to assess progress and make decisions on their progression onto A2. Many students pick up four or sometimes five AS levels in their first year with the intention of dropping them after their first year exams depending on their grades and interest in the subject.

Considering that good quality careers advice, information and guidance is essentially non-existent, it’s outrageous to expect 16-year-olds to decide what they want to do with the rest of their lives at such a young age. I know people much older who still don’t know what they want to do, or have changed their paths altogether.

Finally, the AS is also a key tool when it comes to selecting a university, for both the student and the institution. It’s a clear way for a student to see if they’re on track to get the grades for the course they want. For institutions it acts as a foundation to make admissions decisions.

This is why earlier this month, during A-levels results week, we called on Nicky Morgan, the recently appointed education secretary, to reverse the decoupling of the AS and A-level allowing students to take an AS as part of a full A-level qualification.

It’s not just NUS that thinks this is a bad decision – organisations such as the Association of Colleges, the Sixth Form College Association, the NUT, UCU, Unison, ATL and others, including numerous FE and HE students’ unions, have put their names to the demands we’re making of the minister too.

The decision isn’t popular with students either. Between January and March 2014, NUS conducted research with examining body OCR, which found that 61 per cent of students said that not having AS results will make the university application process very difficult.

Almost three quarters (73 per cent) said they would only pick a standalone AS level if universities included them in offers. Another 41 per cent of students indicated that they had changed their mind about which subjects to drop at AS level.

Even universities have argued that the AS level allows them to award places based on an “up-to-date, objective and transparent record of academic progress at the point of application”.

I was pleased to hear that earlier on this week Labour vowed to scrap the proposed reforms if they get in power next year but we need all politicians to listen to NUS, to the sector and to students in the run up to the general election and commit to reversing this terrible decision.

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