Navigating the new landscape of A level reform

Posted on 3rd Jan 2018 in A levels, Exams, Sixth Form

David Shah, Director of Studies at MPW Cambridge, offers some advice to sixth form students and their families...

The planning of a prospective sixth-form student’s A levels has always required the utmost consideration. Building on successful GCSEs – the results of which are not even known when the ‘What A levels?’ conversation usually starts – and projecting towards potential university or vocational goals are important parts of this process. If truth be told it is often a very stressful time for students and parents alike.

So the last thing needed is the added complication of the on-going A level reform. Although this has been a reality in the sixth-form landscape for the past two years, it reaches its culmination in 2017/2018. Whether you are a student who is just about to embark on two-year A levels, one who is looking to change your educational setting between Years 12 and 13, or one who is looking to improve on already achieved A level grades as an alternative to UCAS Clearing, seeking expert advice has never been more strongly recommended.

Many of the young people and parents who approach us for A level guidance do come remarkably well-informed. Indeed, most of them have often started their research by going on line or even started important conversations with Admissions Officers. Many know specific detail on which subjects are required for a particular university course. Others realise that there is little advantage in taking courses too similar in content, and understand that demonstrating a breadth of knowledge can be very valuable. Some are sufficiently wise and appreciate that it is better to take three A levels and get great results in all three than to take on more and risk lower grades and potentially fewer UCAS points. The best informed student may even ask about which exam board a given A level subject is taught in. On this latter point, knowing the difference between OCR A and OCR B (Salters) Chemistry is vital in planning an End of Year 12 Transfer which includes this subject. The A level reform, however, has added a whole new dimension of complexity (and confusion) to the exercise.

Beyond the government’s guiding principles in setting down the reform – a political response to perceived A level inflation, as identified by Michael Gove in his previous role as Education Secretary – one of the most visible changes has been the ‘decoupling’ of AS and A levels. Whereas before, AS level exams taken at the end of the lower-sixth year would count for 50% of the A level, now their value is significantly diminished. They form a self-contained qualification and a full A level’s marks are now only available in the final upper-sixth exams. The move from a modular system to a more linear one which places much greater emphasis on the final exam will very likely lead to tougher end of year examinations, increasing the stress on all. Perhaps this is balanced by a system where there is now less coursework and fewer practicals. However, if you then add to the mix the phased transition from the older (or ‘legacy’) to the new (‘reformed’) A levels which have been introduced in three distinct ‘waves’, between September 2015 and September 2017, you will begin to appreciate the average sixth form aspirant actually has a lot to think about.

Of the young people approaching MPW over the coming months, we could have a Year 13 student who – even before their summer exams – is not confident about achieving their target grades or has reassessed their university goals or even both. In other words, they need a ‘Plan B’. If this student, for instance, is looking to revisit A levels in a year in Economics, Geography and Mathematics, the first would have to be undertaken in its entirety as a ‘reformed’ subject, the last would still be examined in ‘legacy’ units in Summer 2018, while the Geography could be either. How this is then framed in a universities application also requires a knowledgeable educator’s insight.

All sixth form colleges worth their salt should be offering prospective students and their parents the expert advice needed to navigate their way through the changing A level landscape. Different schools will have different policies – some, for instance, may elect not to enter any students for AS exams, perhaps arguing that this will increase actual teaching time.

We must now just hope that the politicians who have an influence allow these changes to embed properly and do not decide to reset the compass again anytime soon.