A level reform - a discussion paper (24 June 2014)

The Maple Group colleges are always willing to work with all those in education to make proposed reforms as successful and as beneficial for students as possible. The current reforms for A level are no exception. However, below are some of our concerns and, as yet, unanswered questions.

Discrete AS/A  It is very unclear as yet whether schools and colleges will still enter students for an AS qualification, or whether we will end up back with a genuinely 2-year course with a terminal exam as we had before the year 2000. Which way this develops may be very significant.

Students’ performance?  AS marks no longer counting towards the final A level grade may well affect students’ motivation. For some this may mean a return to the old pattern of a year off from hard work after GCSE ...a lazy first year sixth.

Predicted Grades  If there is no formal assessment at AS, or the end of the first year sixth, there will be a far less secure base from which to make predictions of the final A level grade. Predicted grades are already notoriously inaccurate. Imagine how bad they will become if they are based on little apart from GCSE scores, and maybe a couple of in-class tests.

Exam costs  Our colleges each spend up to £800,000 on exam fees each year. The costs of the revised full A level are unlikely to be much less, since the awarding bodies must still assess all of the 2 year course. Thus, any end of first year discrete AS exam will effectively be at additional cost, or at least partially so. This might well another £500,000 or so to a college’s bill.

Co-teaching  Most educationalists have welcomed the partial reprieve by Mr Gove, to allow co-teaching of AS with the first year of A level. This potentially allows many of the benefits of the reforms in 2000 to be saved. BUT, Mr Gove has made it clear he still wants eventually to move away from this, with a return to the pre-2000 model, ie most students taking a set of 2-yearA levels , with AS being also a 2-year, half-sized course, of A level standard. Even in A level centres as large as sixth form colleges that model was so unpopular that only a handful of AS courses existed in the 90’s.

Funding 16-19  The funding rate for next year has just been announced as £4000. Some colleagues in adult education may feel they’ve had it even worse, but 16-19 has had, and still is, getting a really rough ride financially. Government promises to protect education funding have applied only to 5-16 schooling, so cuts to the DfE’s budget have fallen disproportionately on post-16 education. This is not a good context within which to make any major reform.

No. of courses per student  Currently students typically take 4 or 5 AS then 3 or 4 A2’s, + ,for many, the excellent extended project  qualification, but will they take fewer in future?  Will there be a return to just the basic 3 A levels as the norm? If so, what a shame to lose the breadth we have built up over the past 15 years or so. Is a course of just 3 A levels really suitable diet for a bright full-time student of 16 or 17? Will we return to what was once called “funding indolence”?

Of course the funding cuts apply only to the state sector. Might we move to a model where state students study 3 A levels, but independent school pupils continue to study more? If so, what will be the effect on competitive HE admissions? Will the playing field become even less even, between state and independent sectors?

Number of A levels available  What about the awarding bodies? Will they offer a smaller range of subjects? Most A level subjects run at a loss, subsidised by the few profitable exams. The awarding bodies would be happy to lose a few of the most loss-making subjects. They have already begun making noises about what courses they feel are under threat, and of course those noises could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If rumours spread that subject X has no long term future, most schools and colleges will phase it out as soon as staffing issues allow, rather than wait for it to go, thus reducing the take-up and number of entries, so that subject X shrinks to become even more under threat.

Threat to smaller subjects  Both the financial pressures and the likely narrowing of student choices threaten the continued existence of small subjects such as, say,  Italian or Latin … and maybe even Music or Further Maths.

HE must take the lead  There is something of a chicken and egg relationship between sixth form provision and Higher Education. For example, sometimes, well-meaning university admissions staff will say that for example, they do not feel that they can insist on Further Maths A level or even AS, as an entry requirement, even  for HE courses with a high Maths content such as Physics ,or even for a Maths degree itself. But that just allows sixth forms an excuse not to offer it. If universities did all clearly insist on it, no sensible sixth form would fail to offer it, and no parent would allow their child to go to a sixth form that did not offer it.  Surely a sixth form that really cannot offer Further Maths is too small or too poorly supported by its school, and is failing its students.

So if, for example, universities do still want AS results at the end of Y12, then they must say so now, and say so loudly, and often.