The government’s A-Level mess is starting to hit home

The loss of AS-Levels is a regressive move that will impact social mobility as well as education.

The loss of AS-Levels is a regressive move that will impact social mobility as well as education

15 and 16-year-olds in England are currently deciding on their future options after their summer examinations. They’ll now be obliged to remain in some form of education or training until their 18th birthday.

For some this will be an apprenticeship, or part-time training alongside employment. But the majority of young people will remain at school at college, with many of this group taking A-Levels.

My youngest son is in this cohort. He looked around a few schools and a sixth-form college, before deciding to stay where he is and take geography, economics and maths at A-Level. He is worried that maths might be too hard and sad he can’t continue with Latin.

The breadth and organisation of his sixth-form study will be different from his older brother’s – a consequence of the government’s educational reforms. While I am sure that my son will do well at A-Level, I fear the consequences of the government’s change, particularly for disadvantaged students.

Although first discussed back in 2010, A-Level reforms were not announced until this April and will be implemented in 2015 and 2016. There are alterations to curricula, to make teaching more rigorous. Biology students will be required to know more statistics, for example.

But there are also changes in the way that sixth-form examinations are organised. There will be a much greater weight attached to end-of-course examinations, with less emphasis on coursework and on controlled assessments carried out in school.

Labour itself reformed A-Level teaching in 2000, introducing the AS-Levels which split the exams in half. Instead of taking two or three traditional two-year A-Level courses, students sat four or five AS-Levels in their first year of sixth-form, usually dropping one subject and sitting three A2-Level examinations at the end of their sixth-form. AS and A2 Level scores were added together to calculate the final grade.

The present government’s most significant change is that the AS-Level examination, as a constituent part of an A-Level, will be abolished. AS Level examinations will still remain – as long as examination boards choose to put them on. But they will no longer count towards A-Levels.

These change will be implemented in stages. In some subjects the last AS levels will be sat in June 2016, but they will be kept on in other subjects until June 2017.

It is this aspect of A-Level reform that has attracted most criticism, from teachers, parents, almost all universities, academics and employers. Even the A-level Content Advisory Board, a body set up by the government, has voiced major concerns about the impact on subjects such as maths.

There are many merits to AS-Levels. That most students took four subjects meant that they were exposed to a broader curriculum. It should be noted that England’s school curriculum requires specialism much earlier than many other OECD countries. Public exams during the first year of sixth-form motivated some students, and a poor set of AS results shocked others into hard work.

AS-Levels allowed students to dip their toes in the water rather than plunging straight into three A-Levels. If students chose subjects they disliked or found too difficult, under AS-Levels, they had the option of dropping them for the A2 examination.

Many teachers fear that the loss of AS-Levels will impact on those choosing maths and physics, traditionally thought of as being a ‘hard’ or risky choice. The number of students taking A-Level maths increased by 68 per cent between 2000 and 2013 and there are now worries that the loss of the AS-Level will mean fewer girls taking this A-Level, as girls tend to take fewer risks in their subject choices.

There are concerns that the loss of A-Levels will affect the take-up and sustainability of less popular subjects such as Latin. But perhaps the greatest fear is the impact of the reforms on social mobility.

A set of AS-Level results gave university admissions tutors an indicator of academic potential, particularly among less confident students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Writing in 2010, the head of admissions at Cambridge stated that “if the AS-Level disappears, we will lose many of the gains in terms of fair admissions and widening participation that we have made in the last decade.”

The government’s ill-considered reforms are leading to big variations in the organisation of sixth-form teaching. Some schools are now offering prospective students three A-Level choices, while other schools in the same area are allowing students to start four subjects then drop one after the first year of sixth-form.

Some schools are continuing with four AS-Level courses, even though these exams no longer count towards A-Levels. Many independent schools have opted for the broader International Baccalaureate. These inconsistencies will disadvantage some students and mean it will be harder for university tutors to pick students on the basis of their academic potential.

Labour has committed to reversing these proposals. But I do wish we had all shouted louder and harder when these disastrous reforms were first mooted. The loss of AS Levels is a regressive move and for hundreds and thousands of teenagers, the government’s A-Level mess is starting to hit home.

Jill Rutter is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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