A level reforms: a new level of confusion

The Telegraph, 26/10/14, sixth formers will face even more hurdles while the A level system undergoes the biggest shake-up in more than a decade, says Nick Morrison. Chris Ramsey, Co-Chair of the HMC/GSA Universities Sub-Committee and Headmaster of The King's School, Chester is quoted.

Education rarely stands still, and few years pass without some reform or other; but students heading into the sixth form over the next few years face a particularly challenging time with the biggest shake-up of A-levels in more than a decade.

New courses, a switch from modules to end-of-course exams and a fundamental change in the nature of AS-levels represent a radical overhaul of a qualification once lauded as the gold standard of an English education.

The reforms were a response to perceived “grade inflation” as the number of pupils getting top grades increased, and were designed to make A-levels tougher, moving away from coursework towards end-of-course examinations.

And to cap it all, a staggered introduction of the reforms means that for the next three years students will be simultaneously grappling with two entirely different programmes.

Probably the biggest change is in the relationship between AS and A-levels. Contrary to widespread belief, AS-levels are not being scrapped, but they are being “decoupled” – which means they will no longer count towards a final A-level grade.

At the moment, a typical student would take four AS-levels in her first year of sixth form, and then follow three of those subjects through to A-level, also known as A2. Her AS mark at the end of the first year makes up 50 per cent of her final A-level grade.

Under the new system, students are free to take AS-levels, but they will no longer count towards A-level grades. Instead they will be a stand-alone qualification.

As part of the change, AS-levels will attract fewer UCAS points. But that does not mean they will be disregarded by universities.

Universities have traditionally used AS results as one way of differentiating between candidates, but under the new regime they may put additional weight on GCSE grades and A-level predictions, as well as making greater use of their own aptitude tests in their admissions process.

But Chris Ramsey, headmaster of The King’s School Chester, said briefings with universities had revealed different approaches to AS-levels. While some said they would not take them into account, others said they would like to see AS results, says Ramsey, co-chair of the Girls’ Schools Association/Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference universities committee.

King’s plans to offer AS-levels in all subjects next year, but will encourage students not to get too distracted from their A-levels. “We will be very clear to tell students doing the new subjects that they must not spend too long trying to get a good AS result, because it doesn’t count,” Ramsey says. “In another year’s time I think many schools will not do AS-levels at all.”

As well as detaching from AS-levels, A-levels themselves are changing. The content of each course is being overhauled – some more radically than others – although many have not yet been approved by the exams regulator Ofqual, so even teachers do not know what they will be teaching next September. Some subjects, such as human biology, film studies, home economics and environmental science, are being scrapped.

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