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 157.

    As a mum to an 18 yearold and a 14 yearold. I have seen my elder child faced relentless exams for the last 4 years, giving no time for broader development. My younger son will face the new regime - one exam one chance, Will employers know the difference in 10 years time for the ones who were "helped" to pass exams (with resits etc) or the ones who stood or failed by their efforts on a single exam

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    If we let people on the road who have had to resit driving tests multiple times, why does passing re-sat A-level make it any less valid?

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    To be honest, more focus needs to be on the marking of the exams. My grade went up when I risked a re-mark - meaning, if if was marked properly in the first place, I would've got into university.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Ending unlimited resits - Good

    Removing the modular system? Isn't this exactly how universities teach these days? A bit hypocritical?

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Whilst limiting the number of resits seems sensible, destroying the modular structure is not. Taking exams after discrete chunks of learning allows for assessment of greater depth, which can then be combined with a longer synoptic paper at the end of the course to test for a broader overview of the subject. Modular exams don't necessarily make a course easier, they should make it more rigorous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    When universities and employers have to run remedial english and maths classes for people who have passed their A levels, there's clearly something very badly wrong. From what I remember the change to a modular system was pure politics and nothing to do with education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    A-levels are the most important qualification. Having applied to dozens of jobs for physics graduates (2:1 required) I wasn't even considered because I didn't do particularly well in my A-levels even though I got a 1st and a PhD. Clearly many private sector companies value A-levels more than a PhD. Why does the government want to tinker with what is regarded as the highest level of qualification?

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    All manner of stuff comes into exams. For example if the subject is really important to you, and the result matters, you might become a bit jumpy and panic, and and fly off or jump to a conclusion. If it won't affect your future too much on the other hand or you are fortunate enough to have a certain kind of personality, you should have problems, and can expect to over acheive! This affects reliab

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    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..//

    Maybe just shows how easy degrees are now,too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    Whilst the changes are made, I would like to see one central exam board. It is ridiculous to have students doing the same 'A' level, but a multitude of different exam boards they could be doing it with: OCR / EdExcel ? AQA / WJEC / NI...

    We need a consistent A level standard, and this is a good opportunity to implement it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    I remember a few times form my own school, "well I don't know how this happened!", being that I had come first. SChools tend to push towards the result that tthey want. Another big point is that exams are not just testing ability. In a recent exam I completed a question, came home, went to bed. At 5.30am I awoke realising that I had missed the point of the question, probably through slogging to ha

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    When I did A-Levels (2002) I thought they were important.
    When I did my (Maths) degree I thought it was important (and did poorly ish).
    I then got a job that required neither A-Levels nor a degree specifically and am enjoying my career climbing my company's ladder. My advice is don't believe the hype, you can have a successful career once you've finished collecting bits of paper to shred.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    Why are we lying to our young people that getting A-levels and a degree guarantees you a great job, great money and a fantastic life? Ask the unemployed young if it was worth it? Governments mess with education strategies to suit their own political agenda. It has nothing to do with wanting the best for our people and economy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    In a way I can understand why A-Levels are getting easier. It is the only way of getting pupils to pass them due to the ever declining standard of teaching and the ever demanding militancy of teachers.


  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    I finished my A levels last year (an A and a B) and I have just finished my first year at Uni. The problem I found with A levels is that the teachers do not teach the subject effectively, but cut corners to teach you how to pass an exam. A levels are all about retaining a lot information for a few weeks then moving on to the next module.
    Personally, I struggle with exams, I prefer coursework.

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    After having passed A/S levels in 2008 and A levels in 2009 I agree with the premise that modular exams encourage temporary retention of the knowledge gained from the subject, with long term detriment to the student.
    "How did you do?" were usually met with responses like " well I'm resitting this and paying for a remark of that and might have to resit it depending on the remark."

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    This sounds like the A levels I did; nearly 30 years ago. Has educational research come so far in that time that the only response is to go back to a system that was scrapped because it wasn't reflective of student's ability?

    Knee jerk reactions and proposals bereft of an evidence base seem to be the norm in education?

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    So we are switching back to the way it was 12 years ago, when we decided 2-year A-levels with final exams weren't correct. So, in 12 years time when political agenda's change again......?

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    Just watch The Apprentice if you want to assess the quality of some participants with either genuine of fictitious "A" levels and degrees. The exceptional students will need to become tomorrow's entrepreneurs rather than bother about getting into university and saddling themselves with debt and non existent jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    I am currently an A2 student, and I personally feel that changing back to a linear system is not beneficial. The amount of stress that some indivduals go through is not healthy, the break up of modules means that greater knowledge can be applied to key areas, rather than feeding loads of information and expecting us to regergitate it for an end of 2 year exam.


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