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 137.

    With A levels, as with all exams, if you don't have the right background they don't make a great deal of difference, and there are only a few token exceptions. It is useful to hit a certain standard, so that you can go into the usual smart working class occupations like, teaching, nursing, and these days things like engineering and computing. The good stuff will go to those with connections.

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    A glance through some of the previous comments tells me that many of today's students wouldn't have had a chance with 'O' Levels never mind 'A' Levels. The poor things go on about 'stress' and 'pressure' blissfully unaware that until a few years ago everyone coped with sitting all their exams at the end of two years. And the pathetic grammar on display is so irritating. Educated? I think not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    Employers taking on young adults leaving education at 18 with A-levels look mainly at GCSE exam results. Actual knowledge gained in A levels adds little for these employers.

    Universities could introduce entrance exams across the board for 16 year olds and then teach selected 16-17 year olds for an extra foundation year.

    We could get rid of A levels altogether. Save millions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    What about those of us who are not interested in University? Why should I suffer from this? My dream is to get 180 UCAS points from A levels and join the Royal Navy... why should I be penalised because they want to make it more like University? I couldn't care less about University!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    The Government should not worry so much about the course content-but focus on developing the relevant skills that students really need to succeed at University. Giving students materials so that they have the option to broaden their horizons would be one way in which to encourage free thinking, as opposed to text books written for the sole purpose of getting students through an exam.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    I think this is a good idea, especially when many colleges abuse the current system to improve their retention stats. Our local A level provider actively encourages students to leave if their AS levels are below a C grade as they assume that their overall grade would be to. A Levels are a joke and with so many alternatives the should be reviewed an revamped or scrapped.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    Re: 105. idlehands
    "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"

    If everyone gets A's, there is no way to compare - there needs to be a distribution. The A* has helped, but in general if more than 10% of candidates get the highest available grade, the exam has failed any purpose of comparison.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    Usual stuff about putting working class and poorest students at the biggest disadvantage possible, and cheating the system. Only problem for them is that we won't be able to compete in the real world due to the lack of flair. Working class students need to regard the system and establishment as only there to cheat them, and to keep separate from it, only means of reward through own businesses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    Bit radical but...
    Why dont we work out what A levels are actually for ???!!!
    Then the issue of how hard they should be and what the exams should be like might become rather more obvious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    Modular assessments can sometimes be the only format that is suitable, or fair, for some students who have special educational needs. Moving whole sale to an exam only format is not necessarily the best way forward for everyone. Care is needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    Why do Universities only want the highest grades now?

    Is it because grading has been devalued due to "easier" examination?

    I went to Sheffield in 1975 and was accepted with BBD;my nephew has been rejected with BBB when he was asked for AAB to do the same the only way they can assess the "better" candidates.

    My BBD in 1975 was considered a good it has no value

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.


    "...They also do get to much holiday. Maybe if there where less holidays then standards would really be better."

    -It's TOO much holiday!
    Get it right!

    "Where" is incorrect too. Standards, eh!"...

    and its FEWER holidays not LESS!

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Preparing for University has little to do with accumulating information (that's what the first year of University is for- and that's where the current system is failing!)-but about developing the skills to acquire information in the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    How is it fair to clamp down on re-sits when UK exam boards consistently produce exam papers LITTERED with mistakes & can't even mark papers properly? I remember in 2005 I was marked a grade 'U' for a GCSE English Literature exam, despite achieving As and A*s for all my other work. Only when exam boards are capable enough to produce edited, professional exam papers can we review re-sits! The cheek

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.


    "...They also do get to much holiday. Maybe if there where less holidays then standards would really be better."

    -It's TOO much holiday!
    Get it right!

    "Where" is incorrect too. Standards, eh!

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    Its so easy for those people at the top to say 'A leels need to be harder', or 'lets make up a new rule that they can only resit once, because we are bored and have nothing better to do with government funding...' I sat an A2 french and an A2 Geography paper today, the geography was my 2nd resit. Its their choice if they just want me to fail my exams first time and claim benefits...

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    What is the problem? Why the constant medling from politicians? Pupils are set a syllabus to follow- they are then examined by independant bodies -they get a result -they apply for University based on entrance criteria set by the Universities. How does taking modular examinations -which in essence is how a degree is structured -detract from the level of intelligence of the pupil?

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    How are parents, Schools and students supposed to advise young peopel on choice of subjects and whether to stay on for 'A' levels or leave school and get a job? More importantly, just what is wanted/expected of pupils when every new Education Minister - OfQual and Ofsted keeep moving the goalposts and ill informed journalists keep devaluing (even trivialising) the results they achieve?

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    @ 75. Mark_from_Manchester

    "The point of exams is to establish a pecking order in the ability and apptitude of students - not to get more & more passes."

    I couldn't agree more, However I don't believe a single exam at the end of a course, or at the end of each year in a course gives the best representation of a candidates ability. Coursework is much more representative of working in real life

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    I wish they would leave things alone... I am in the last few months of my A2s and the only thing I would change is to bring back coursework to all or most subjects. The fact that they replaced coursework with an exam 'about coursework' is rediculous, especially in fieldwork-based courses.Coursework is a much better measure for A-level grades


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