CEO Blog: England at risk of adopting a 'back to the future' system with A Levels

12 Aug 2014

In the week when A Level students get their results there is good reason to welcome the statement by Tristram Hunt, Shadow Education Secretary, that a Labour Government would not press ahead with the Coalition’s reforms to A Levels. There are sound educational arguments in favour of this position. Hunt is also right to suggest that it would be timely to reflect on the merits of the many reforms to A Levels that Michael Gove- Conservative’s Education Secretary up ‘til July- sought to push through, notwithstanding the concerns of school, college and student leaders and universities.

Gove’s decision to make AS Levels stand-alone qualifications, effectively decoupling them from A Levels, has been the focus of intense criticism. The decision made little sense to schools, universities (which use AS Levels rather than GCSEs to help formatively predict outcomes at A Level) and most importantly students.  In many cases students use AS Levels to help inform their decisions about which subjects to continue with into their second A Level year. A third of students enter university for the first time when they are over 21 and many students start new educational journeys at Level 3 when they are much older. AS Levels provide a platform not only to make decisions about A Level subjects but also help build confidence in learning and studying and how to improve outcomes.

The decision about AS Levels is not the only problem arising from Gove’s tenure at the Department of Education. His emphasis on ‘facilitating’ subjects (actually the subjects that he thought were required to get into a small group of universities) is equally bizarre. The majority of students do not study at these universities and the emphasis on these subjects to the exclusion of others was questioned by students, schools, employers and universities in good measure. The official ‘revaluing’ of subjects at GCSE and A Level and their emphasis in the school league tables has led to equally important subjects such as Design and Technology being marginalised.

In a letter to Ofqual dated 22 January 2013 Gove argued that A Level reforms were needed because ‘there is a clear dissatisfaction among leading university academics about the preparation of A Level pupils for advanced study’. The evidence for this assertion was scarce but the Department for Education rode roughshod over those who advised otherwise. Equally perverse has been the decision to ask the Russell Group of universities to review the content of these ‘facilitating’ A Levels. An arm’s length company has been established on a contract and terms that have never been disclosed by the Department for Education but which are thought to run into several millions of pounds. All of this completely ignores the processes which the awarding organisations already have in place to review subject content and assessment and which involved academics across the sector as well as others.

The pace of change of these reforms has been relentless and resented. The new A Levels are due to be ready for teaching from September 2015 in schools and colleges- which have already been asked to adapt to changes in GCSEs.

For students the decisions relating to assessment are equally disturbing. The idea of assessment via coursework and study based on modular programmes has been swept away in favour of exams at the end of 2 years with no A Level resit opportunities until the following summer. The disadvantages of this approach for students are obvious. While other countries are reviewing the merits of linear assessment, England is at risk of adopting a ‘back to the future’ system that does not fit well with either the needs of employers or universities. An ‘exam-only’ system is not about improving standards but about rigidly confining students to a single form of assessment. It encourages teaching to the test and limits the extent to which students are required to develop crucial skills such as extended writing, research and problem solving that they will require not only in higher education but also in real life.

The fact that Labour is prepared to review the Coalition’s A Levels reforms should be warmly welcomed. It should also give pause to thought to the Coalition Parties as they prepare the manifestoes in advance of the May 2015 general election. Since 2010 the Department for Education has been a whirlwind of ideas, policy initiatives and assertions. A lot more listening and evaluation would not go amiss.

Pam Tatlow