Pupils who take AS levels do better in A levels, study finds

But research finds teachers still sceptical about value of the qualification

AS levels

Students who take AS levels go on to get better grades in their A levels for certain subjects, according to a new analysis.

Researchers from the OCR exam board found that in psychology, the proportion of pupils achieving a grade C and above was 5.9 percentage points higher for those who had taken the AS compared to those who had just sat the A level.


Read: AS level entries fall by 60 per cent

Read: A levels 'no longer fit for purpose'

Comment: 'We must face facts about GCSEs'


The number of candidates taking AS levels has collapsed since the government decided to “decouple” the qualification from A levels.

In 2015, AS level entries stood at 1,331,955, but by 2018 they had fallen to just 269,090.

However, the new analysis from OCR suggests there may still be some merit in pupils taking the exams.

The board said that “contrary to the perceived limitations of reformed AS levels”, research based on the National Pupil Database “identified a positive”.

Looking at A-level grades for students in 2017 who had taken an AS level in 2016, researchers found that grades were “slightly higher than for those students who had not taken the AS level first”.

The analysis took into account the prior attainment of students and of school type.

The researchers drilled down into four subjects in particular – biology, English literature, fine art and psychology.

In psychology, the proportions of “AS + A level” candidates achieving grade C and above, grade A and above and grade A* were respectively 5.9, 2.9 and 0.7 percentage points higher than the corresponding proportions of “A level only” candidates.

A similar trend was evident in biology, where the proportions of “AS + A level” candidates achieving grade C and above and grade A and above were 4.7 and 1.8 percentage points higher than the corresponding proportions of “A level only” candidates.

However, the analysis found no grade benefit for fine art or English literature students who had taken an AS.

“Non-exam assessment in fine art, and the less hierarchical structure of knowledge development in the English literature course, may be responsible for minimising the performance benefit of taking the AS,” the researchers said.

Despite the apparent benefit of taking an AS level in some subjects, separate qualitative research by OCR still found a scepticism towards the qualification, with teachers citing “practical concerns about AS levels; the variability of co-teachability from subject to subject, insufficient funding and a squeeze on teaching time”.

“As soon as they stopped counting towards the A level, they lost all their value for us,” said a vice-principal of a sixth form college.

And a head of vocational qualifications at a secondary school said: “I would be surprised if AS levels stuck around to be honest…I think most places are finding that they’re pretty pointless.”

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