‘Abolishing the current form of AS-levels represents a decoupling of the exam system from students’
Tony Diver, a student starting Year 13 at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds, in September, writes:
On Thursday just gone, I received my AS results. After one year, and after having learnt half of the material required for a full A-level, I was graded on my work so far.
For me, this means two positives. Firstly, I have the opportunity to discontinue any of the subjects if I don’t perform as well as I had expected. In my case, I dropped two grades from predicted in one subject. I can review that and do something about it, because I have a year before I go to university. I can focus my efforts elsewhere, or I have a year to retake that AS.
But secondly, the grades that I collected mean something in their own right. If I were to choose to leave school and apply for a job, I could, and the year that I spent at sixth form will not have been a waste. I can retake my whole AS year and study different subjects; I can swap and change as it suits me.
In short, the AS is a qualification that embodies versatility. It is not spectacularly difficult, long, or different in subject matter to GCSE or A2. It doesn’t give students huge amounts of prestige, but offers them options. It tells GCSE students that state education hasn’t thrown them out because they don’t have the capacity to pass a full A-level; it will facilitate learning at the level a student can manage.
Which is why I’m dismayed at the A-level reforms coming into force next year. Because my friends in the year below me won’t have a results day that means something – it’s unlikely that they will have a results day at all. They will be locked into a two-year course that takes them right up to the gates of university, and if they can’t finish an A-level, they’ll have nothing. All of the classroom time of the first year will have been wasted, because there is no recognition for those who don’t tick the boxes at the very top. They can choose to study an AS, but they’ll disadvantage themselves if it turns out they want to stay on for A2, because while the qualifications are nominally “compatible”, the disruption of exams at AS will set them behind those just doing A2. That doesn’t allow them to fulfil their potential if they turn out to be capable of more.
The reforms show a fundamental neglect of the role of schools. That role isn’t to simply reward the best students with A-levels that display their superiority over the rest. It’s to teach students to the highest level they can achieve, and recognise that achievement on paper. The reforms to AS levels won’t do that. They lock students into a two-year, all-or-nothing programme that piles on pressure at the very end. The new A-level system might be fine for the Oxbridge candidates who know what they want and who are prepared and willing to cram two years of lessons for one exam, but it doesn’t cater to the vast majority of students who have needs that extend beyond the "three A-levels" model.
This is not just a decoupling of AS and A2. It’s a decoupling of the system and its students. Because we are all different, we don’t necessarily know where our strengths lie, and at the age of 16, two years is a long time. It’s a long time to remember all of the course material and it’s a long time when our ideas about the future could change. It’s precisely because we are so versatile that the system must be also. This week saw the last AS results day as we know them, and that’s a shame for students who need options.