A-level reform.

Between June and September 2012 a consultation was launched following the 2010 Government white paper, The Importance of Teaching. This consultation was developed using a range of research on A level assessment, on perceptions of A levels and on similar qualifications used internationally. In early 2013 letters exchanged between the Secretary of State and Ofqual clearly highlighted Mr. Gove’s policy intentions around the future of the As qualification and of the design and content of linear A levels that would promote a ‘deep understanding’ within students (clearly he must have felt that this was lacking?!)

On perusing the proposals, and being loosely involved in the consultation process myself, I have an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach (and this time it’s not due to a dodgy kebab). My biggest concern is with coursework being removed from most subjects at A-level (and from all, other than Art & design, at As). For practical subjects like science this baffles me! I am the first to admit that the current coursework / controlled assessment set up isn’t a flawless one, but not giving practically-able students credit for practical work astounds me, especially when non-exam assessment will be present (20%) in: English language, English literature, History, Geography and Computing. Clearly Mr. Gove didn’t have a predisposition for science coursework back up in Aberdeen in the 1980s! Where such non-exam assessment is actually used (in A2) it will be ‘teacher assessed’, but marks will not be reported back to schools before the final grade. It remains unclear at this stage how this will actually be reported (will it be a grade, a comment or a list of key skills achieved?) and how universities will use such information to screen and select potential new undergraduates. As a result I am concerned about this too.

The ‘un-coupling’ of the As/A2 qualification means that As will become a separate, stand-alone qualification, also taught and assessed on a linear basis and at the same standard as the current As. It will not however, be a required first step to A-level. This may pose an interesting conundrum regarding how cohorts of students are taught in schools and colleges up and down the country. It will also give the option of students doing an As over 2 years.

The content of an AS will (continue to) be a sub-set of the content for the corresponding A level, even though it is intended as a standalone qualification. This will allow students to progress from As to A2 (though the intention is that As is taken at the end of Y13) – so, in other words, there should be no real change, so I am not too stressed about this. It is generally envisaged that they will be no more difficult than they are now either (though they are meant to be more demanding due to how they are being assessed), though the proof of the pudding will be in the eating I guess.

In terms of assessment, the grading standard of the new A levels and As qualifications will not be different from that of the current versions (phew!) and, despite the changes, A levels and As qualifications will remain substantially the same qualifications as at present (though they will become more challenging and as a result textbook publishers are scrambling for new and improved content to their resources). However (deep breathe), questions will have increased reliance on students’ ability to (a) integrate different aspects of study and (b) demonstrate sustained reasoning via extended responses with all exams being in May and June (there is currently further consultation taking place regarding whether to allow November re-sits of A2 or As). Furthermore, as in the current system, the exams will reflect the same level of demand and maturity as now – i.e. As exams will be aimed at Y12 students, having completed a year of study.

The final demand (for both students and teachers alike) will be the incorporation of A-level maths skills into taught (and therefore assessed) content. This could represent a real challenge for some teachers and their students. Some subjects will have the minimum proportion of maths skills defined across other assessment objectives (queue drum-roll): Biology 10%, Chemistry 20%, Physics 40%, Psychology 10%, Geography 10%, Computing 10%, Economics 20% (15% for As). Best get your scientific calculators out!

The timeline for these reforms? First teaching will be September 2015!

I’m going for a lie down!

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