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Tristram Hunt: confusion over AS-levels 'biggest issue' in secondary education

Uncertainty over changes to AS-levels is the “biggest real-time issue” facing secondary education in England, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt will say today.

The Labour politician is due to tell delegates at the Association of Colleges annual conference in Birmingham that the decision to scrap AS-levels as a “staging post” to A-levels narrows opportunity and is bad for social mobility.

AS-levels are due to be separated from A-levels from next autumn to form a qualification in their own right as part of a wider A-level shakeup.

The move has proved controversial, with universities, headteachers and MPs raising concerns. Labour said pupils, parents and teachers are unclear about the options that will be available and the implications for progression into further study or work.

The party has already pledged that AS-levels and A-levels would be ‘recoupled’ under a Labour government.

Mr Hunt is expected to say: “The uncertainty surrounding the future of AS-level qualifications is the single biggest, real-time issue facing secondary education.

“As pupils decide – as they currently are doing - on the qualifications that they will be studying from September 2015, the government is failing in its duty to properly inform pupils about the choices open to them and in preparing schools and colleges for the different scenarios following the general election in May.

“The government’s decision to scrap AS-level qualifications as a staging-post to A-level qualifications narrows opportunities and, as Cambridge University has argued, will be bad for social mobility.

“My message to young people is this: Labour will not pursue the government’s policy of scrapping AS-level qualifications as a staging post to full A-level qualifications.

“We will ensure that options are kept open so that young people can progress their studies with the knowledge that they can decide, in-year, which subjects they will pursue. Your choices will not have to change, you will be given greater flexibility.”

The Department for Education has pushed through its reforms arguing that a return to end-of-course exams will allow for deeper study and will stop modules and re-takes interfering with learning.

Earlier this month Cambridge University wrote to all schools and colleges in England urging them to continue to offer AS-levels. The prestigious institution said it "strongly encourages" would-be applicants to take AS-levels in at least three subjects, arguing that the exams are of "significant educational benefit".

Last month TES reported that a growing number of independent schools were considering ditching A-levels altogether in response to the “turmoil” over the reforms. 

A DfE spokesperson said: "As part of our plan for education we want students to be given the time to study subjects in detail to develop the deep understanding that will prepare them for life in modern Britain.

“By decoupling the AS-level from the A-level, we are ending the routine of automatic, external assessment of students at the end of year 12. Removing this unnecessary burden from teachers and students means young people will have more time to study the fundamental concepts of a subject rather than sit through an endless treadmill of exams. 

“Students will still be able to sit an AS before deciding whether to take a subject at A level, but will no longer be required to do so by the government, instead the decision will lie with students and teachers.

“Our reforms are not being rushed – it is right that changes are made as quickly as possible, so that students can benefit from these new reformed qualifications as soon as possible.”


Related stories:

Cambridge University urges schools: do not ditch AS-levels – November 2014

Independent schools could drop A Levels in protest against reforms - October 2014

AS-levels would return under Labour, pledges Tristram Hunt – April 2014


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