It has been good, during these last few weeks, to see the two sectors in secondary education – the one, maintained, engaged in educating the vast majority of the population, the other, independent, minority but an important one - united in their views on the curriculum. That HMC welcomed Mr Gove’s retreat on EBCs whilst agreeing on the need for better exams and less assessment was in harmony with much that has been said by maintained school leaders, so the department did well to listen.
Now a different but equally powerful alliance appears to be taking shape. At last week’s Universities and Colleges Admissions Service conference I was a lone Head on a panel of Higher Educationalists answering questions on fair access. It was as polite and harmonious as one would expect professionals to be, but on one question unanimity was striking: we all want to keep end-of-year 12 AS exams.
Some of us remember when AS came in. It was a late-80s invention (three reforms ago by my reckoning) and it was a jolly good idea in principle. The sixth form curriculum was too narrow, critics said: what was needed was a supplementary qualification (the S in AS), ideally in a contrasting subject, taken alongside the habitual three A Levels at the end of year 13, with half the content and half the credit. Scientists might be expected to take a language or a creative subject; historians and linguists might take Maths; narrowness would be avoided. For the languages teacher it was a welcome injection of bright students into the sixth form; for universities it was supposed to provide breadth.
The experiment was in retrospect doomed to failure: universities still wanted the three good grades in the core subjects to be studied, and cared little for the fourth qualification, so students let AS slip. Though AS remained a useful qualification for some, it inevitably slipped down the priority list, until the brainwave came to make it a halfway stage to the new ‘A2’. In came modularity, and the rush of assessment which the current government sees as so harmful. To retain AS now as a stand-alone qualification risks exactly the same result.
End-of-year 12 AS exams have clearly brought some undesirable pressures for learners. How does a linguist or a mathematician manage advanced questions after one year of study? She or he will be better at everything after two years, not just better at the second year’s work. How do you chop History up into ‘first year’ and ‘second year’ skills? In many subjects the obvious way to get a good A2 result will be to retake your AS in year 13. And it is retakes which have been most notorious in the Government view, a view shared by some if not all in schools.
But these halfway exams have brought three major benefits too. First, they have given a qualification for year 12 leavers. Before any reader snorts (or even recalls that the school leaving age is now 18), remember that there are many, in all schools, who achieve well at AS, but fail to reach A2 standard. A stand-alone AS could still reward them, but not if it is pitched at A2 difficulty levels.
Second, AS provides a genuine, objective benchmark. The mythical ‘lower sixth of adventure and discovery’ never really existed: in the pre-AS days schools examined and tested probably at Christmas and summer of year 12, but students still had no real idea of how well they were doing. AS has told them, in clear terms. In the words of the submission to OFQUAL prepared by the University of Cambridge: A return to linear A Levels will not mean less testing, just less externally-moderated and reliable testing. Progression to Year 13 will probably come to depend on satisfactory performance in internal tests which will be stressful and high-status examinations – but which will be useless to universities.[i]
Finally, AS has given universities good data for selecting students. Of course, even in post-2011 Admissions, not all universities are selecting institutions ... but most are, and if ABB or even BBB are crucial criteria for funding, Higher Education needs good data about final A level attainment. Study after study has shown that AS grades are a good indicator of university success. Without them, the top institutions – those we are all keen on making accessible to all the brightest students – will have to revert to unreliable predictions, unreliable GCSE scores, or more admissions tests, or what one senior figure has called ‘eye watering offers’. A*A*A* for example. All of these outcomes will disadvantage those in lower-performing schools, schools with less resource for information and guidance, those less able to prep their top performers. Er, maintained schools.
Cynically, you might think that HMC and the independent sector as a whole would be in favour of a move which promises to favour our pupils. Educationally, we are not. Sensibly designed end-of-year 12 AS levels, taken once and carefully marked and moderated, are a good thing. They help students, make for informed choices and informed higher education offers. They are not lightly to be done away with.
Chris Ramsey, Headmaster of the King’s School in Chester, and co-chair of the HMC/GSA Universities Committee