17th August 2016
The UK Department for Education is pushing through big changes to AS and A-level exams, aimed at making them more ‘fit for purpose’. The new A Level reforms place an increased emphasis on the performance in an exam as there will be little coursework and few opportunities for resits.
For most subjects this already means that students will only be examined at the end of their two year course and AS Levels will no longer count towards the final A Level grade but rather stand-alone from the final A Level, having been ‘decoupled.’
The curriculum of most A-level subjects has not and will not be significantly changed, the exception being maths, which is receiving a major shake-up.
The other notable change is a reduced emphasis on coursework. Now simply referred to as ‘non-exam assessment’ the reforms will see a drop in this form of assessment as the new principle is that if it’s possible for something to be assessed through formal examination then it will be. The practical work, in Science, will be a practical endorsement, which must be passed but will not contribute to the final A-Level grades awarded.
Existing (‘legacy’) A levels are modular and they comprise AS modules (50% of total A Level marks + UCAS tariff value) taken in Year 12 (lower sixth) and A2 modules (50% of total A Level marks + UCAS tariff value) taken in Year 13 (upper sixth).
The new AS is not an advanced subsidiary but instead more of an advanced supplementary qualification. If you just study for an AS you should finish it at the end of Year 12 (lower sixth). Marks gained in the reformed AS level cannot count towards a full A Level. They are worth 40% of an A Level (+UCAS tariff value). This means that when you apply to university under the new UCAS tariff an A-level A grade will be worth 48 points and the A grade in AS will be worth only 20.
Schools have been left in a rather difficult situation in trying to decide what to offer their sixth form students. There are three options:
New A levels will be graded with the same A* to E pass marks as currently used and teaching of the new syllabuses is being phased in over three years having started in 2015.
Most AS and A-level courses are being designed to be “co-teachable” so that both groups of students will learn the same things in year one. The key difference is that those students who have opted for the A-level course will not be assessed at the end of year one, but those taking an AS exam will be.
Timeline of Reforms
Phase One: Subjects – English Language, English Literature, English Language and Literature, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Psychology, Computer Science, Business, History, Art and Design, Economics, Sociology.
Sept 2015: Start teaching new A levels and new AS in phase one subjects
June 2016: New AS exams in phase one subjects. Penultimate existing/original A level exams. June 2017: First A level exams in phase one subjects. Last exams for existing/original A level subjects.
Phase Two: Subjects - Geography, Ancient Languages, Modern Foreign Languages, Dance, Music, PE, Drama and Theatre, Religious Studies.
Sept 2016: Start teaching new A levels and new AS in phase two subjects.
June 2017: AS level exams in phase two subjects.
June 2018: First new A-level exams in phase two subjects.
Phase Three: Subjects - Maths, Further Maths, any other AS or A Level subjects taught from this point.
Sept 2017: Start teaching new A levels and new AS in phase three subjects.
June 2018: AS level exams in phase three subjects.
June 2019: First new A-level exams in phase three subjects.
The new UCAS Tariff will also be used for university courses starting from September 2017.
Resits & Retakes (A resit requires that you sit one item of assessment on a further occasion. / A retake requires completion of all elements of assessment on a further occasion.)
The new ‘linear’ A Level system undoubtedly makes it more difficult for schools and colleges to accommodate AS Level and A Level retakes.
The new system means it is no longer possible to RESIT individual units/modules of a course, instead you have to RETAKE the entire theory exam (it will be possible to carry forward internally assessed marks). Therefore, it will still be possible to complete an A-level course in one year, so long as all the assessments are completed at the end.
With no reintroduction of January resits, at AS and A level, students will have the chance to retake in May or June the following year.
Retakes should only be available to students who have taken the qualification previously, or had a good reason not to have taken it when planned (such as illness).
An important announcement from Ofqual in March 2016 ensured that students taking existing (legacy) AS and A levels will have the opportunity to resit them if they want to improve on their results. The decision from Ofqual, following a public consultation, means that those taking existing (‘legacy’) exams during the period of reform will not be forced to study for reformed qualifications should their original results not go to plan.
Another increasingly popular option for a number of schools to offer is the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ). Already in place in a number of schools this can be a 5000 word research based essay, a performance or a creative artefact etc and involves several months of work during the sixth form. An EPQ will still be marked at full A Level standard (A* available), unlike the reformed AS course. It also equates to 50% of a full A Level.
How universities respond to the changes is going to be vital and already we are seeing that their attitude is not uniform. The University of Cambridge is in favour of schools continuing to offer AS Levels as they believe that they are useful indicators of future A Level performance (http://bit.ly/2a3N0DQ). The University of Edinburgh has said that it will still require a fourth AS or a fourth A-level for medicine courses and The University of Newcastle has said that it could use an AS-level qualification as a deciding factor on results day if lots of other students miss their grades. Other universities put more store by GCSE results as a good indicator of future academic ability. UCAS has a list of qualification reform statements from universities.
If A Level grades drop nationally then it is possible that universities will reduce their entry requirements on the basis that course content is tougher. After all, they have long complained that more rigour is required in the sciences and that resits, and teaching for exams is not sufficient preparation for degree courses. We shall see.
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