Researchers tell DfE: 'Reducing the range of A-levels could tackle funding cuts'

DfE-commissioned research also suggests a UCAS-style system for A-levels would help schools and colleges to plan their class sizes

Martin George

The best A-level results in the state sector in 2018 were enjoyed by 16-19 free schools

The government should consider reducing the range of A-levels on offer as schools and colleges face funding cuts and falling pupil numbers, a Department for Education commissioned report says.

The research report by Isos Partnership, published today, looks at how A-level providers make decisions about class sizes.

It questions whether the current degree of student choice at A-levels is sustainable.

While providers saw financial and pedagogical benefits of providing larger class sizes, the authors say a number of barriers prevent them from doing so.

The authors write: “Systematic action to increase class sizes is likely to require some consolidation in the range of subjects available, or the range of providers offering those subjects, or both.”

It says the current A-level system has been set up to maximise student choice in subjects, subject combinations, and the range of providers.

However, it warns that “the inevitable corollary of such a degree of choice is a greater prevalence of small classes and therefore higher costs”.

It adds: “The question for policy-makers is the extent to which, in a period of both reducing national funding and a reducing 16 to 19 population until the 2019 to 2020 academic year, the higher costs of a choice-driven system can continue to be supported.”

It offers four options that the DfE and Education Funding Agency could consider. They are:

  • Reducing the range of A-levels subjects. It says action could be taken nationally to reduce the number of possible A-level qualifications, or, working with universities and employers, to “provide a clearer indication of which A-levels are deemed to be of national importance".
  • Introduce a UCAS-style application system for A-levels. This is suggested because a “significant minority of providers” – particularly further education colleges and sixth-form colleges – found that the uncertainty of translating student applications into confirmed places was “a key barrier in planning class sizes”.
  • A bigger role for the DfE in managing the A-level market. It could “impose more stringent criteria for demonstrating the viability of new A-level provision in an area”, and the DfE could broker “collaborative or other arrangements” for small A-level providers that cannot show evidence of their financial sustainability.
  • Promote collaboration between institutions. The report says that seeking out strategic collaborations “may be a necessary step” for smaller institutions that want to maintain a broad A-level offer. It says the DfE could have a role in making information about successful collaborations available.

The authors also list options that A-level providers could consider, including developing a “simple ready reckoner” to calculate the costs of providing A-levels, which would “expose the true financial cost of continuing to run very small classes”.

It suggests overcoming common barriers to effective collaboration, such as using technology effectively, moving teachers rather than students, and “fresh thinking on timetabling”.

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Martin George

Martin George

Martin George is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @geomr

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