Top independent schools plan to ditch A levels because of Gove reforms

On the TES, 14/08/13, news blog, William Stewart reports that independent schools are planning to avoid controversial government A level reforms by abandoning the domestic version of the qualification in favour of an international alternative. Incoming HMC Chairman Dr Tim Hands, Magdalen College School, Oxford and former HMC Chairmen Andrew Grant, St Albans School and Bernard Trafford, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle and are quoted.

Elite independent schools are planning to avoid controversial government A level reforms by abandoning the domestic version of the qualification in favour of an international alternative, TES can reveal.

 One leading headteacher and former chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) group of top private schools said that the move to international A levels was “on the cards” for his students and that many other independent heads were looking at making the switch.

The change would allow the schools to continue with existing modular structure of the qualification, where the results of AS levels taken halfway through the sixth form count towards final A level results.

In England new linear A levels where all assessment takes place at the end of two year courses will replace the modular system from 2015. Michael Gove, education secretary, has said he expects the change to lead to a “revival of the art of deep thought”.

But as TES revealed on Friday, the HMC, which represents schools including Eton College and Harrow, is concerned about the move away from modules and the pace of the reform. Now it has emerged that some members are so worried that they plan to ditch domestic A levels.

The development follows the long standing trend of independent schools using international GCSEs – known as IGCSEs – in some subjects to avoid the domestic version of the exam, a tactic Mr Gove has encouraged state schools to embrace.  

Andrew Grant, a former HMC chair and head of St Albans School, Hertfordshire, said it was likely that his school would switch to offering mainly international A levels.

He is concerned that Mr Gove is “throwing the baby out with the bathwater” by de-coupling AS and A levels.

“I know I am speaking for many of my colleagues in HMC when I say we will look for a way of continuing the AS level system,” he told TES. “We at St Albans School are looking very, very seriously at International A levels because we feel there is a tremendous value in the feedback provided by AS levels at the halfway point.”

Cambridge International Examinations have a long established set of International A levels, used in more than 125 countries, which allow a modular AS level structure in most of the 60 available subjects, though not for languages.

A spokesperson for the board said: "Currently 72 schools in the UK offer Cambridge International A Level. We expect this to grow as schools look at tried and tested alternatives in times of reform."

Bernard Trafford, head of Newcastle-upon-Tyne Royal Grammar School, and another former HMC chairman, said he “did not rule out” opting for the International A level.

He did not think the loss of the AS level modular system was the right thing for “schools as a whole” but said it might suit some of his students.       

The reaction from HMC, which last week described A level reforms as a “huge gamble” is only the latest blow to the government’s changes, which will feed through to exams sat by students from 2017.

Elite universities have already rejected Mr Gove’s call for them to take ownership of the new A levels. Their implementation has been delayed a year but schools still think it is much too fast.

Tim Hands, incoming HMC chairman and master of Magdalen College School, Oxford, said: “There is concern about the nature of the reform but there is much more concern about the pace.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Linear A levels will end the constant treadmill of exams and ensure pupils develop a real understanding of a subject.”

By William Stewart, TES. Click here to read the article © TES.