Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The impact of A Level reform - Cambridge University flags concerns

There is an article in the Daily Telegraph outlining the opposition of Cambridge University to the planned scrapping of AS exams and their claim that this will lead to UK pupils being less likely to be offered a place.  For the full piece, click here.

This raises an interesting debate which is getting very little public discussion so it is worth raising it here.  The current plan from the Department for Education is to scrap the current system whereby pupils take AS Levels at the end of the Lower Sixth which form 50% of their A Levels and are completed with the taking of A2 exams at the end of the Upper Sixth.  Instead, pupils will sit exams at the end of a two year course.  The teaching of these new courses is scheduled to start in September 2015 with the first of the 'new' A Levels being sat in the summer of 2017.

Michael Gove's rationale is that this will increase rigour in sixth form education and end the opportunity for pupils to re-take exams.  Already the January sitting of exams has been scrapped so that AS Levels can only be re-taken at the end of the Upper Sixth along with A2 exams.  While I have no difficulty with the idea of a rigorous examination system this means that pupils currently in the Upper Sixth are being placed under great pressure next summer with exams both before and after half term.  The perceived wisdom is that this will see a drop in results across the country which would fit in with another of Michael Gove's plans.  

However, it is difficult to anticipate the extent of this impact and it is interesting to see that the universities have not made any alterations to their offers as they 'wait and see'.  Indeed, the biggest surprise this year has been the re-appearance of unconditional offers which have been made to several of our pupils at King's.  This includes highly-rated courses at Russell Group universities which gives some indication of the state of play in higher education at present.

One advantage of a return to exams at the end of two year's of study is that the summer term of the Lower Sixth will no longer be partially lost to exams meaning greater time for teaching as well for the breadth of education.  It would be great to see opportunities taken for personal research projects, such as the Extended Project Qualification, which we already offer, and more extra-curricular activities such as Arts Festivals, music and drama productions and sport.  All of these are vital ingredients of the fully rounded education at King's which prepares our pupils to be happy, successful individuals.

Having said which, before we get to taste the benefits there are issues to be faced.  For over ten years, Cambridge and most other universities have used results attained at AS Level as a good guide for making university offers.  With an increase in overseas pupils applying, Cambridge is being clear in stating that this may lead to pupils in the UK being disadvantaged in the race for places.

More fundamentally, the first teaching of these exams is now only 18 months away and still there is no firm information from the Department of Education about the structure and content of the new qualifications.  I am confident that King's is agile enough to give our pupils the best opportunities whatever might be proposed but our young men and women deserve a lot better.  It is one thing for Michael Gove to have grand plans and easy headlines but an Education Secretary worth his salt should have made better progress in the planning and communication of the most radical overhaul of exams in this country since the introduction of AS Levels in the year 2000.