A-levels reforms: Getting to grips with testing times

The Telegraph, 07.03.16, in the biggest shake-up of sixth-form education for 15 years, A-levels are being extensively revised. Paul Bray tells you everything you need to know. HMC member Richard Cairns, headmaster of Brighton College is quoted and leading independent The Perse School features.

It’s all change for sixth formers. The Government is implementing wide ranging reforms in a bid to make A-levels a better preparation for university.

“Although the overall standards and marking schemes remain broadly unchanged, students will no longer be able to score highly just by reciting what they’ve rote-learned,” says Dale Bassett of exam board AQA.

Here’s what’s involved.

No more modules

The most radical change is the abolition of the 'cram and forget' modular exam system introduced in 2000. Instead of taking standalone exams every six months students will sit one set of papers at the end of their course, enabling – indeed, obliging – them to draw on their whole two years of study.

Although superficially similar to the old-style, pre-2000 A-levels familiar to parents, the new exam system will probably be closer in outlook to university finals. The overall approach has been broadly welcomed.

“We think the new format should improve analytical and argumentation skills and better develop students for higher education,” says Yasmin Sarwar, co-founder of Cardiff Sixth Form College, the UK’s top-performing independent school in last year’s A-levels.

“It should lead to a better understanding of the subject, rather than students simply learning for exam purposes.”

“The ‘retake culture’ had got out of hand, with some pupils wanting to re-sit modules again and again,” says Richard Cairns, head of Brighton College.

“Preparing for exams takes up a lot of class time,” adds Paul Baker, deputy head of curriculum, at the Perse School in Cambridge. “So abandoning the modular approach will create more breathing space for teaching and learning, especially in the lower sixth.”

The end of AS-levels?

The switch to end-of-course exams means that AS-level marks will no longer count towards A-level grades, and although AS remains available, it is expected to wither on the vine. Brighton College is one of many schools that are abandoning AS, but not without regrets.

“On the positive side it does free up time to do broader and more interesting things. We encourage pupils to enter Oxbridge essay competitions and projects run by the Institutes of Maths and Physics, for example.”

Less coursework

The other notable change is a reduced emphasis on coursework – widely believed to be overdue, thanks in part to over-marking by schools and arguably over-zealous contributions by parents.

“The new principle is that if it’s possible for something to be assessed through examination then it will be,” explains Mr Bassett.

This doesn’t signal the end of coursework – art and design, for example, remains 100 per cent coursework- assessed and foreign language orals will still be important – but its role will diminish in many subjects.

However, practical work is still valued: in sciences, practicals will remain as a required part of the course, but will no longer contribute to students’ grades.

Content tweaks

The curriculum of most A-level subjects has not significantly changed, according to Steven Evans, head of general qualifications reform at exam board OCR, although at the request of universities some courses have been tweaked.

“For example, history is moving beyond the old ‘Hitler and the Henries’ approach, with new topics such as the Anglo-Saxons, African kingdoms, and 19th- and 20th-century China,” says Dr Evans.

The exception is maths, which is receiving a major shake-up. Universities felt that the former syllabus contained too many options and did not always teach the core knowledge, so the new syllabus will be entirely mandatory.

The mathematical content of other sciences has also been ‘beefed up’.


Government enthusiasm to get the ball rolling quickly means a stretched-out three- phase introduction for the new A-levels – somewhat to the chagrin of schools and students alike.

Most major subjects, including English, history, economics and science, were introduced in September 2015, so this year’s lower sixth are already studying them. Geography, modern foreign languages, PE, RS and some other subjects will be introduced this September, with the remainder in 2017.

The new maths course, however, will not start until 2017 – largely to ensure that students have already completed the new GCSE maths syllabus, which has also been extensively revised.


The big unknown is how the new A-levels will affect university admission – somewhat ironic, since they were introduced largely at universities’ behest.

If, as expected, many schools decide to abandon AS-levels, will universities rely on GCSE results, pupils’ predicted grades (which are notoriously subjective) or some other marker when making provisional offers? No one seems quite sure.

A deeper concern is articulated by Perse School’s Paul Baker. “I worry that, nationally, many students will learn less, as economic pressures force schools to drop down to just three subjects in the lower sixth.

We’re continuing to offer four subjects, but I fear that in a few years independent schools may be the only ones doing this.”

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