​A level reform – what are the implications for students and schools?

Posted on 10th May 2017 in Exams, Curriculum, Independent Education, Which London School?

Marwan Mikdadi, Deputy Head of Bancroft’s School in north east London, looks at the impact of new reforms and considers how students, schools, universities and exam boards will react...

If you are of a certain generation you will have taken your A levels at the end of two years. Those two years culminated in a period of intensive revision but also followed a great deal of time exploring one’s subjects. You might, therefore, be thinking what is all the fuss about A level reform and the changes that are being examined in 2017 for the first time? However, with these school leavers acting as guinea pigs for the largest and most significant reform of the A level system in a generation it seems apt to consider the impact this might have on their futures.

In the pre-2000 reform days, teaching to the test was unheard of. Focussing on assessment objectives or whether or not something was on specification was not something anyone worried about. Teachers were not encumbered by the limitations of the specification and pupils were not jumping through hoops as soon as they started the course. Given this utopia, it was not surprising that Michael Gove, Education Secretary 2010 -2014, set as one of his major planks of reform the abolition of the AS and A2 modular system and the creation of the new reformed A levels which would rekindle those halcyon days.

However, there has been a significant change in attitudes to work and A levels, as well as the expectations of universities that make the return to the blissful days of no work in the L6th (Year 12), a bit of a misnomer.

The now almost defunct system of AS and A2 had its critics but was developed to satisfy a particular demand from schools and colleges. Many 16-year-olds embarked on A level courses and ended up with nothing to show for them. In 2000, the last year before the reforms, 10.9% of all candidates who sat A levels got an N (a near miss) or U (unclassified): in other words, failed. Increasingly pressure was levied on government to remedy this situation and prepare the UK economy for the future by reducing the skills gap.

By 2016, the number failing had fallen to 1.9%, undoubtedly due to better teaching and significantly higher expectations of students. However, much of the credit for the increase in A level passes had to be levied directly at the doorstep of government which introduced modules, increased coursework and the opportunities to resit exams and, therefore, optimise performance as part of the Curriculum 2000 reforms. One of the spin-off benefits was that schools were expected to broaden pupils’ curricular exposure, before narrowing down in the second year. Pupils would have something to show for their endeavours in the first year of A level, the AS, and still be able to carry on to the gold standard of three A level passes.

However, there remained nagging doubts about the quality of the Curriculum 2000 A levels, with many schools abandoning AS and A levels in favour of a raft of other qualifications, including the International Baccalaureate, more challenging International A levels and the Pre-U. The government increasingly saw their flagship qualification undermined by press reports of grade inflation and evidence of pupils sitting modules up to four times within a two year envelope (January and June sittings) in order to maximise grades. Under pressure to restore rigour, the government initially scrapped January sittings and then modules all together. Forced by some universities (led by Cambridge) to maintain some AS levels as an indicator of performance at the end of Year 12, the government has kept these, at least in name, but ensured they have been decoupled. No longer would the work undertaken for an AS exam feed directly in to performance in the final A level, thus rendering them almost an afterthought.

So how will this impact on future generations? Many would have you believe that pupils will now have the chance to explore their subjects in greater depth, but there is a long way to go before we have any evidence of that happening. A levels have not gone back to their pre-Curriculum 2000 size, but in fact grown. Having taught A level economics in the 1990s, written papers for the modular Curriculum 2000 and now teaching the reformed subject, I can testify that there is now significantly more to be taught than ever before.

The other significant change has been the reaction of universities in the last 16 years to grade inflation. With the rise in the number getting the top grade of an A from 17.8% in 2000 to 25.8% obtaining A and the recently created A* grades by 2016, universities have increased their expectations of pupils. The offer for Economics and Economic History at the University of Edinburgh was as low as BBC in 1991 but by 2016 the same course expected A*AA. Students cannot afford to be complacent and schools, under pressure from league tables, be willing to let their pupils find their feet in Year 12. The cold reality is that pupils will hit the ground running at the beginning of their Year 12, knowing that pressure exists for them to succeed, especially as they increasingly compete on a global stage and find their opportunities to work in the EU reduced. This added pressure is likely to mean that, whilst the government has set out to encourage pupils to deepen their knowledge and understanding at A level, it is likely to increase stress levels and anxiety amongst pupils as they are faced with terminal exams upon which their futures depend, with very little room for error.

What can schools do about this? Many independent schools have tried to embrace the best of both worlds and maintain the broad curriculum. At Bancroft’s we ask pupils to start on four A levels before narrowing their choices down to three, although without the bonus of having an AS at the end of it. Bancroft’s uses the first term as an opportunity to explore the wider scope of the new subjects that the pupils are undertaking, without mentioning exams and assessment objectives and certainly not worrying whether something is on the specification or not. What is clear is that bright, engaged and interested pupils want to learn and are delighted to have the chance to explore, but also rely on the school and the teachers to tell them when it is time to concentrate on the exam. Experienced staff have taken the lead in guiding less experienced, more recently qualified, staff as well as inculcating an air of calm amongst the pupil body.

It is hoped that exam boards recognise the increasing demands on teachers and pupils by awarding the same number of top grades as in previous years, despite the increased content and the pressure of having to adapt to learning and understanding two years’ work, rather than bitesize chunks, which were previously examined at regular intervals. Universities may come to recognise, with time, the changed world that now exists and adapt their grade offering in the future.

Bancroft's School is an independent, coeducational day school for pupils aged 7-18.