Headteachers condemn 'disastrous' AS level downgrade

Funding changes and fewer qualifications behind the decline, say researchers

Catherine Lough

AS levels

Headteachers have blamed government reforms for narrowing students' subject choices post-16, as a new report reveals that the proportion of students taking qualifications in three or more subject groups has halved since 2010.

Students’ subject choices at A level have become “exceedingly narrow”, with young people less likely than ever to take up a variety of subjects, according to a new study by the Education Policy Institute. 

Researchers behind the report have highlighted both the impact of reforms to A and AS levels and reductions in post-16 funding, as have heads. 

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “The government has consciously narrowed post-16 subject choices by its disastrous decision to downgrade the value of AS levels, and now intends to reduce student choice further by scrapping Btecs and similar qualifications.

Long read: 'Decoupling AS and A level will inevitably prove to be a terrible mistake'

Related: Heads say government reforms are killing the AS level

Need to know: Your guide to reformed A levels

Today's report, commissioned by the Royal Society, finds that most of the decline in the breadth of students' subject choices occurred between 2016 and 2019, with a 14 percentage point fall over this period.

It says that the "decline appears to be driven by the fall in the number of qualifications taken following reforms to A levels and AS levels".

The report says that the decoupling of AS levels from A level – which has meant that students take fewer qualifications – and real-term falls in post-16 funding will have exacerbated the decline in the breadth of subjects studied.

It says that "an overall fall in the number of qualifications taken by young people is behind the reduction in the diversity of 16-19 study programmes".

"Reforms to A and AS levels have led to a substantial fall in the amount of teaching time that young people receive during this phase," it adds.

"Real-term falls in 16-19 funding, alongside a funding formula that provides no incentive to offer an AS level in addition to three A levels (or equivalent applied or vocational qualifications), have most likely exacerbated the impact of these qualification reforms."

In 2010, 38 per cent of students took qualifications from three or more subject groups, but by 2019 this figure had more than halved to 17 per cent.

The level 3 qualifications – A levels or equivalent – were grouped by the researchers into subject areas of science, technology and engineering; mathematics; languages; humanities, arts and social sciences; and vocational and professional.

The study found that students with higher GCSE English and maths grades and lower levels of disadvantage were more likely to study a broader range of subjects at A level, while pupils of Chinese and Indian heritage were most likely to study a broad range of subjects.

"On average, students achieving an average of a standard pass (grade 4) in GCSE English and maths take qualifications from one subject group, whilst students with a grade 7 or above take qualifications from two or more areas," the report says.

It adds that disadvantaged students and students with special educational needs were less likely to study a broad range of subjects.

"Students from Chinese and Indian heritage study the broadest range of subjects on average, whilst Black Caribbean and Gypsy or Roma students study the narrowest range of subjects on average," it says.

"These differences appear driven by the lower average prior attainment of these groups and persist even when comparing students taking the same number of qualifications."

But it finds that for "students taking three A levels (or other equivalent qualifications with the same teaching hours), there has been an increase in breadth in recent years".

Broader range of subject choice linked to higher earnings

Students who studied a broader range of subjects were found to have higher earnings in their mid twenties, with women who had taken qualifications from all five subject groups earning £26,000 per annum on average in 2016-17 compared with £19,000 for those who had sat qualifications in only one subject group, while men who had studied a broader range of subjects earned £28,000 compared with £21,000.

When differences in attainment were taken into account, those taking qualifications from two or more subject groups earned 3-4 per cent more than those taking qualifications from only one subject group, which, the report says, is comparable in size to factors such as social class or the university students attended.

"The difference is small during individuals’ mid twenties but is in line with other factors that continue to grow in importance during a career," the report says.

Mr Barton said the government has "compounded" the problem of a lack of subject diversity "by imposing on post-16 education the largest falls in per-pupil funding of any sector of the education system since 2010".

“Subject diversity in post-16 education is not something that is just a vague nice-to-have cultural aspiration, but is important in terms of keeping open the options of young people," he added.

“The government should restore the value of AS levels by once again making them a stepping stone to a full A-level, halt its plans to defund Btecs, and improve post-16 funding.”

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said: “This report confirms our fears that curriculum breadth has diminished. Coupled with a change in funding formula, this means students are getting less access now to a broad range of qualifications at level 3 than they were before the reforms were implemented. 

“When the A and AS level reforms were taking place, we were clear that the decoupling of AS levels from A levels would have a significant detrimental impact on the curriculum offer and on achievement, because the decoupling of AS levels would disincentivise students to take them in the future. 

“We agree with EPI that the curriculum at level 3 should not be squeezed even further in terms of its breadth, and the government proposal to defund level 3 applied general qualifications such as Btecs, only adds to the reduction in curriculum range available to young people."

Sarah Hannafin, senior policy adviser for the NAHT school leaders' union, said: "Government policy is having a narrowing effect on the curriculum which young people can access. Although the government’s reforms have seen a significant increase in the number of exams that students must take, the breadth of subjects is getting narrower.

"The EBacc [English Baccalaureate] measure narrows young people’s options at GCSE and this impacts their choices for sixth-form studies. The AS level qualification has been decimated because these exams no longer count towards a full A level. And the fall in real-terms funding for 16-19 education affects the number of qualifications sixth forms and colleges can offer."

The Department for Education has been contacted for comment.

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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