Third time lucky on A-level reform?

11th September 1998 at 01:00
Labour has launched another consultation on the future of the "gold standard" exam. Nicholas Pyke reports on a review that gets its teeth into the detail.

After two lengthy consultations on the future of A-levels in as many years, the Government's exam quango is now poised to launch a third.

Sir Ron Dearing kicked off the debate with his review of 16-19 qualifications in 1996. Then, in May 1997, the new Labour government instituted a further consultation, soon after taking office.

So far, most of the discussion has been broad brush, sticking with basic questions like whether A-levels should remain in their current shape, or whether they should be replaced by a baccalaureate. The answer was, of course, that A-levels should remain in place.

This time round, however, the detail itself is at stake. Teachers are to be asked their views on firm proposals setting out the content and structure of each A-level subject - in time to introduce the new exam, and the rest of the reformed curriculum, in 2000. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is to canvas a representative sample of 600 schools and colleges, along with the usual professional bodies.

The shape of the reformed A-level is not a secret. It remains largely as Sir Ron envisaged it two years ago. There are, however, some important modifications, and these form the basis of the new consultation document.

The main changes are the decision to incorporate a new-style AS qualification (Advanced Subsidiary). And, associated with that, the decision to ensure that every subject is broken up into six neat modules. From 2000, every A-level syllabus will be open to examination in either modular or "linear" (traditional) form, where the final exam takes precedence.

There will be:

* A six-module A-level. Three modules will be designated Advanced Subsidiary and three as A2 - the second half of an A-level course.

* All modules will be open to assessment either during the course or at the end of the course.

There are a number of additional innovations.

For the first time, all A-level candidates will be given what might in lay terms be called a "coherence test". A certain percentage of the marks in every subject will be devoted to "synoptic assessment", testing candidates' grasp of the subject in its entirety.

Students will also be tested on the key skills nominated by Sir Ron Dearing, which are: communication, information technology, application of number, improving own learning and performance, working with others and problem solving. The Government is introducing stand-alone key skills units within the structure of the General National Vocational Qualification, but insists that A-levels should also play their part.

Many will be pleased to see an increase in the coursework limit. At present for most subjects this is set at 20 per cent. Ministers have now agreed that it can rise to 25 or 30 per cent, if the necessary controls are in place.

The other major development is an attempt to breathe new life into the special papers - another recommendation of Sir Ron Dearing. In recent years these have fallen into decline. Previously, the S-level required a broader subject knowledge than the straightforward A-level, as well as greater analytical skill. In future, S-level candidates will be tested on the standard A-level syllabus, but in greater depth.

Consultation on "Qualifying for Success" will run until October 30. Subject-specific questionnaires, together with draft A and AS subject criteria and a backround note, are being sent to key educational and employment organisations and individuals. Consultation materials can be accessed on the Internet at or from the QCA, 29 Bolton Street, London W1Y 7PD

Qualifying for success

AAS subject criteria

Structure A and AS-levels will generally follow the model below: Six modules specifying content, three designated as Advanced Subsidary and three as A2 (representing the second half of an advanced-level course).

Each module will be separately assessed.

Candidates will need to take all modules.

Module assessments will be equally weighted.

Module assessments can be taken either during the course or all at the end.

Key skills to be tested at A-level. These are: communication, information technology, application of number, improving own learning and performance, working with others and problem solving.

Coursework limit increased from 20 to 30 per cent A coherence test, known as synoptic assessment to be introduced. Candidates will get marks for integrating and applying knowledge and understanding.

Special papers to be reconstituted as super A-levels. Will test standard A-level material at a higher level.

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