Tougher A-levels to allow fewer re-takes

A-level exams The exam watchdog is announcing an overhaul to make A-levels more challenging

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A-levels should be strengthened by only allowing one re-sit, replacing "modules" with end-of-year exams and increasing university involvement, says the exam watchdog, Ofqual.

Ofqual chief, Glenys Stacey, says too many re-sits by pupils can "devalue individual exams".

There are also questions over whether AS-levels should be scrapped.

The A-level reforms will mean "higher education becomes more involved", says Ms Stacey.

Ofqual is setting out proposals on changes to A-levels, which will be open for consultation for three months.

If the proposals are adopted, the first changes would be applied to A-level courses beginning in September 2013 - with pupils taking reformed exams in summer 2015.

Changes to content would be introduced from September 2014.

'Gold standard'

This "gold standard" qualification is taken by pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The exam watchdog is suggesting a shift away from a "modular" structure - and a reduction in the opportunities for pupils to keep re-taking exam components to push up their grades.


  • Fewer re-sits - with option of only allowing a single re-take
  • Less modular structure - move towards traditional linear course, ending in summer exams
  • Question mark over future of AS-levels
  • If AS-levels scrapped, would return to two-year A-level, assessed by final exam
  • Greater involvement from universities in designing courses
  • If proposals accepted, changes introduced from courses beginning September 2013

The proposals call for an end of the January exams and puts forward the option of only allowing one re-take for AS and final A-level exams.

This would mean that there would only be one set of exams each year, in the summer term at the end of each of the two years.

Ms Stacey says this would "re-balance the emphasis of A-levels onto the learning rather than the assessment".

The role of AS-levels remains open to debate - with questions raised about whether they should continue in their current form.

Ofqual says it is "neutral" on the future of AS-levels and sets out three options - scrapping them altogether, keeping them in their current form or turning them into a standalone qualification which did not contribute to the A-level.

If AS-levels were to be scrapped, it would mean A-levels returning to a two-year course with a final set of summer exams.

Degree ready

Brian Lightman, leader of the ASCL head teachers' union, called for more debate about the value of the modular structure.

"It is simplistic to say that a course done in modules is easier than one with terminal exams. Nearly all university courses are modular and I have yet to hear criticism that they aren't rigorous enough," said Mr Lightman.

Education Secretary Michael Gove wrote to Ms Stacey earlier this year, calling for universities to become more involved in A-levels, so they could better prepare students for degree courses.

The proposals set out by Ofqual say that universities should be engaged in the content and design of A-levels - and that the qualifications should have the support of at least 20 universities.

Responding to the changes, the Russell Group of leading universities said that A-levels were "broadly fit for purpose" - but the changes would be beneficial.

Wendy Piatt, the group's director general, said the culture of re-sits was fuelling "grade inflation" - and so supported limits on re-taking exams.

She also supported a move away from a modular approach to teaching and testing - saying that pupils could arrive at university still expecting to be "spoon fed".

The Russell Group has also voiced concerns about the lack of rigour in some subjects, such as maths and English.

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of universities, said that the level of engagement in A-levels expected of universities would require a "co-ordinating body".

Ms Tatlow also said that the qualification would lose credibility if approval was limited to only a "small sub-set" of universities.

Neil Carberry of the CBI said that employers would also want to see their needs reflected in changes.

"The focus needs to be on making A-levels more challenging, to ensure that young people are not just better prepared for university, but are also well-equipped for work."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    When I was at secondary school (in Canada), the only time you were allowed a re-sit was if you missed exams due to illness or family emergency, or had taken exams under those same circumstances and felt your performance had been affected.

    You only get one chance in life for many things - exams should be a key part of learning that lesson.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    A levels were bloody hard in 1980. The exams were harder than the final exams at University. Its been pretty obvious that grade inflation was going on for years, particularly in the boom under the socialists. It takes a nasty knock to put some sense back into people after the La La years. Its about time we set a proper challenge to the young because we live in a challenging world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    Re:109. Universitys require top grades because University is hard. It's not meant to be easy, and there is no option of re-sitting endless times until you get the result that you want. Generally, if you fail, you retake the exam once, but this is only to pass, not get a better mark. If you aren't good enough to get the grades they are asking for, what makes you think you can survive the course?

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Here we go again...politicians tinkering with systems they have no idea about... As my Gran used to say "Be careful what you wish for". Will end up less doing A levels/attending University (figures already show) What is interesting is that what about the reasons WHY some pupils need resits? Social? Personal? Financial? No mention of that and whats to say they want to IMPROVE their grades?

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    A-Levels are a joke, I did the American Advanced Placement in a Private School. These are one year courses that cover the same amount they do in the 2 year A-Levels. They are 100percent exam, so making these exams very tough. We did not have the option of resitting, to do so you would have to wait a whole year to the same exam period. Make them tough, and worthwhile for Uni and employers

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    No No No ......this is really going back to the 70's

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    If Gove had his way he would say.....

    "You can have your pasty and heat it and can eat cake but I am forced now to try 'tugging forelock' lessons & 'knowing your place' awareness modules.

    I am right on this as I passed (XV resits) my prep school "intro. to Latin" test with flying colours. You may have a degree in pedagogy and 20 years teaching experience but let me tell you........ cont. p94

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    You need re-sits in case of this:

    I was in this exam and needed a resit, I then got a good grade after the exam board got it right.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    I have just finished my last set of A2 exams, I have re-sat exams, because they were bad and I want good grades. Uni's require only top grades now, so people re-sit exams to push up their UCAS points. It is not smart to have a final exam, there is too much information needed to learn. My folders (just A2) have hundreds of pages in them. There is more pressure now on exams than ever before.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    i think the system is fine the way it is. we currently do not have the money to keep investigating and changing the education system in this country.

    If you really want to have a exam that covers everything just do a summary exam at the year end like some uni courses do. My uni course is all modular.

    I think the exams is not the problem its discipline in the class room

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    Easier? Harder? More or less relevant? Who is to blame? Good god, this is precisely the problem - too many opinionated and often uninformed viewpoints. Gove is an idiot full stop. Radical change is needed and I don't simply mean 'oh this year we'll focus on this for a bit'. Q - what is the purpose of education? Please, don't respond with 'training the future workforce'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    good to know that my 15 year old will be a guinea pig, just as his (much) older siblings were with SATS.

    A levels were reformulated in 2008, in many cases reducing the modules sat. That was following on from changes in 2000. There might be a case for "improvement" and going back to a limit on re-sits but so much educational "policy" seems to be down to "back of an envelope" whim.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Would it matter if they were getting easier? They serve as a means to roughly compare candidates who sat the same/similar exams fairly recently, for jobs as well as university places. Although A-level results are an important benchmark for younger people, having sat my A-levels 10 years ago I find employers are no longer interested in my A-level results. Rather what I have achieved more recently.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    50 years ago you were not allowed to resit - you had to reTAKE. That meant repeating a year of education or (if you were rich) going to a crammer for several intensive weeks or months of private tutoring. If you don't know enough to get 40% (or maybe 25% these days) you should be covering the ground again first.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    I was only able to go to university through doing resits of individual modules around 2006 as I had awful A/AS level results. But I scraped through and then went on to achieve a 1st in my degree, followed by a masters, followed by entry into the industry of my degree/masters.

    There is no way I can support this proposal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    The "exams are easier now" argument will rumble on forever. But I'll say this - I took double maths (pure and applied) A-level in the 1990s, and my dad showed me a pure maths A-level paper from the 1970s. I struggled with it because there were some questions I couldn't answer - elements that were simply no longer on the syllabus. I took my real pure maths exam and got an A. (No A* back then!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    99-TheWalrus999, although I do not agree with endless resists, I would like to point out that candidates pay for resists not the education department.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    I am a current A2 student. Unless universities lower their grade boundaries to compensate for this proposed change then they will suffer from under subscription. The main reason for resits is to push your grade up to get into the AAB courses. Exams are difficult enough on their own but to put them all into one final exam where a massive range of question can be asked is surely asking too much?

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Absolutely, right. You should know your stuff to pass an A level.
    They give you an extra chance with the re-sit.
    Endless resits until you pass proves nothing and costs millions

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    BNP are you a politician? You're very good at diverting away from areas of discussion and not responding appropriately... I think your views are rather sad and bleak - Perhaps you should consider relocating to a country which is less offensive, Uganda perhaps? I've heard taxes there are well spent and rather reasonable.


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