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Gove's A-level reforms will disadvantage pupils in England, warns University of Cambridge

Pupils in England trying to enter higher education will be disadvantaged by the government’s decision to remove AS-level assessment from A levels, one of Britain’s elite universities has warned.

The University of Cambridge said today that sixth formers in other parts of the UK will find it easier to get into university than counterparts in England who no longer have AS-level results in all their subjects as a way to demonstrate academic potential.

The university is calling on Michael Gove, education secretary, to step back from his plan to turn all A levels into ‘linear’ qualifications, assessed by end-of-course exams.

The university said schools in England should still be allowed to opt for the current "modular" system, which sees all students take AS levels halfway through their A-level courses. The University of Oxford has already expressed similar concerns.

“We are extremely concerned that students in England will be disadvantaged in light of the decision in Wales and Northern Ireland to retain Year 12 assessment,” Cambridge states in its response to an Ofqual consultation on A-level reform.

“We would strongly recommend giving schools/colleges in England the option to decide whether to offer modular or linear A levels, and allow them to decide based on the best interests of their students.”

A spokeswoman for the university told TES that pupils in Scotland, who sit their Higher qualifications a year earlier than A-level candidates, would also have an advantage over English pupils under the new system.

Mr Gove wants the reformed A levels – most of which will be introduced from September 2015 – to be linear and without mid-course exams, in a bid to permit more in-depth learning.

Last year the secretary of state said that the change would “allow students to develop a better understanding of their subject through the greater maturity that will be developed over two years of study”.

The AS level would survive, but only as a stand-alone exam that no longer contributed to A-level grades and no longer played the same role in university admissions.

But Cambridge argues that: “Concerns about the depth and rigour of the A level can be addressed without losing the AS exam, taken at the end of Year 12 and contributing towards a full A level”.

It is concerned that without AS-level results in all subjects, universities will have less reliable evidence of student achievement and students in England will find it harder to decide which university best suits their academic potential.

“In terms of applying to Cambridge, it is a big issue,” a spokeswoman added. “Obviously we will have the Welsh and Northern Irish and the Scots coming with Year 12 results and students in England won’t have them – they will have GCSEs and [teacher] predictions.”

She said research had shown that predicted results were “not terribly accurate” and were less reliable than actual grades. 

Oxford’s head of admissions, Mike Nicholson, warned in October that the government’s plan to reduce the importance of AS levels would “have tragic consequences for widening participation and access to higher education”.

“AS levels are excellent because they give students a very clear indication of what they are capable of achieving,” he said. “Losing AS levels will have a really significant result on the likelihood of students from a disadvantaged background progressing to higher education.”

Today Cambridge – together with the Association of Colleges and Guild HE, which represents small universities and HE colleges – said that if the plan to remove AS levels from A levels continued, then the government should provide funding to allow all students to sit four AS levels at the end of Year 12.

“If the government does not wish these exams to feed into final A-level results, so be it, so long as there is funding sufficient to ensure that all students can sit exams in this way,” a spokesman for the three consultees said.

He said that keeping AS levels as a separate qualification taken by some students and not others would lead to “practical difficulties” for schools and colleges.

An Ofqual spokesman said that removing AS levels from A levels was a government decision that would be inappropriate for the watchdog to comment on.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Returning A levels to single exams will make sure students gain a deeper understanding of a subject and put an end to the test treadmill in sixth forms – something many teachers and universities complain about.

“Many universities already use a wide range of data for admissions purposes, including GCSE grades and predicted A level grades. Recent research has shown that GCSE results are actually a better predictor than AS results alone. Our reforms will add further rigour to these qualifications, making them even more reliable as a predictor for admissions.”

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