A-levels turmoil has left teachers’ plans in chaos

The Times, 31/01/15, labour’s plan to stop reform of A-Levels if elected is throwing school’s planning for the autumn term into disarray, head teachers say. HMC member schools King’s College School Wimbledon, Manchester Grammar, Berkhamsted, Alleyn’s, Haileybury are referenced and HMC member David Goodhew, headmaster of Latymer Upper School is quoted.

Tristram Hunt, Labour’s shadow education secretary, has pledged to halt the introduction of a first batch of redesigned A-level qualifications in September and tell school sixth forms to revive current courses that were due to be scrapped.

It means tens of thousands of teenagers who have chosen A-level subjects based on a new syllabus, designed to be taught over two years, would switch to one-year courses with different content. Teachers who have prepared for new A-levels would also have their work wasted.

In most cases subject content of the new A-levels is similar to the current syllabus but science A-levels have seen greater changes, with higher levels of mathematics added.

Some sixth forms, largely among independent and grammar schools, have restructured tables from the autumn to drop AS level exams and encourage students to pick only three A levels, rather than start with four AS levels as is common under the current system which Labour would roll-over.

The picture is already complicated as, under reforms begun by Michael Gove as education secretary, linear A levels will be launched in only some subjects in the autumn: biology, physics, chemistry, English Literature, English language, history, economics, computer science, art and design, business, psychology and sociology.

Remaining subjects will continue to be taught as AS levels for the first year, with half their marks contributing to the final A level grade for pupils who study the subject for a second year.

Should Labour win in May it would have to agree very quickly how to implement the change with Ofqual, the independent exams regulator. An inconclusive election followed by prolonged coalition talks would heighten the uncertainty.

If elected, Labour would allow a further two years for the new A-level to be redesigned and re-accredited as one-year courses and introduce them from autumn 2017.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “I don’t think schools are aware of all the different outcomes. It makes it almost impossible to plan in a meaningful way for these reforms. They want to know what they are doing with staffing and with planning as they get close.”

Around 16 per cent of sixth forms have decided to abandon AS levels to teach the new A levels over two years to extend teaching time, as the reform intended, according to a survey of 469 schools by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service.

Leading private schools that intended to drop AS levels in redesigned A level subjects include King’s College School Wimbledon, Manchester Grammar, Berkamsted, Alleyn’s and Haileybury. Some, such as Wimbledon High School, are going farther and delaying AS exams in all A-level subjects for a year. Latymer Upper School already uses such a model.

Other private schools follow suit, and delay AS revived level exams for a year, but state schools risk losing government funding if they do so.

Mark Fenton, headmaster of Dr Challoner’s Grammar School in Amersham, Bucks, whose sixth form plans to drop AS levels in redesigned A-level courses, said: “State schools cannot do that under current financial rules.”

Tristram Hunt, Labour’s education spokesman, said: “The uncertainty surrounding the future of AS Level qualifications is the single biggest, real-time issue facing secondary education. As pupils decide 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.”

David Goodhew, headmaster of Latymer Upper School in west London, said: “It creates an element of uncertainly and anxiety. That’s why many schools are hedging their bets with what they are doing to September.”

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