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 177.

    165. FSHero ".Winter modules should be retained, not least because hayfever can be a serious impediment to summer exam-takers."

    Right, Im going to try that one out on my boss...Get a grip, real life doesnt allow you time out just because you have a snotty nose...You are either ready or you are not, hayfever or no hayfever.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    @170. Rivers38
    Entry requirements are based on supply and demand. If everyone does worse, entry requirements go down. Maths, science and engineering used to have low offers because they were unpopular; languages still do have relatively low offers.

    I don't know whether A levels are easier now than they were. I do remember past papers being all very similar - this certainly made it easier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    In economics for example you can do all the maths correctly, make a simple mistake and get no marks"

    If you think doing all the maths correctly, getting the answer "12" and then ticking the box "43" is "a simple mistake", then you have a lot to learn.

    But to back up your point, link on here to a multiple choice exam with huge workings, few questions and only numerical answers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    Since I only studied sciences at A Level, I can only comment on these - but the "difficulty" of exams can't even be compared. DNA, for example, wasn't even discovered when my mum sat her A Level in Biology. I was examined on its basic science and application in biotechnology. Why is there this notion of the past being better? A lot of knowledge has changed since the 1950s.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    5 Hours ago
    I was a teacher .... so I do know what teaching A level is like. From your reply .... you cannot read properly, I stated some of these 'incompetant and lazy' teachers, not all teachers. 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!

    And it's WERE FEWER holidays. Huh!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    Here we go again - teachers spend hours of potential leisure time preparing for change and after a few years it's "as you were, folks"! Having just retired from 40 years in teaching, I realize we've all been on a merry-go-round of change - if it isn't the curriculum they're messing about with, it's the goalposts which OFSTED judges teachers by. When are politicians going to leave it alone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    5 Hours ago

    I am currently sitting my final A Level exams and they are hard enough as it is without having to do resits as well. Be reforming the A Level system, the government are going to put more pressure on students who are only 16-18 not exactly fully grown adults. They should leave the system alone!!!!"

    sarah1, after reading this I'm assuming you will be doing a lot of resits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    Judging from all the comments from young people saying they wouldn't have got the necessary grades to get into University unless they had done numerous re-sits, I would suggest that they weren't really up to it. Many Russel Group Unis have to run remedial classes - such a waste of their time. It is time that high standards were brought back in and only the truly deserving get to go to University.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    I don't really understand the logic for getting rid of a modular system. Most courses at Russell Group Universities (I myself have just finished at Newcastle) are modular based, and exams are taken as modules - just like A Levels. Most A Level courses require you to have a "synoptic" exam at the end of the course also which tests everything. A Levels have not got easier - teaching is now better!

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    @164. AndyC555

    Multiple choice exams can be really quite brutal. In economics for example you can do all the maths correctly, make a simple mistake and get no marks - or sometimes marks taken off!

    You enjoy your moan though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    I recently heard from a parent that their child was 'slow at reading & writing'. As a consequence they were being given 1 person to read their exam question and another to write down the answer that she verbally gave them. So we have someone that could potentially get an A but when they start work will need someone to read their emails and another to reply to them. Erm?

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    By no means are A levels getting easier. Anyone bold enough to suggest so should ask themselves when the last time they sat an A level examination was."

    I asked myself. And it was when no-one, no-one at all took more then 4 A levels. And when they didn't need an A* grade because so many people were getting grade A.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    I sat A-levels in 2006 and achieved 4As without a single re-sit. Some of my academically weaker colleagues achieved 3As but through multiple resits. While their efforts are to be commended, A grades have lost their discriminatory value. A-levels should measure aptitude as well as effort.Winter modules should be retained, not least because hayfever can be a serious impediment to summer exam-takers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    This is so unfair. Exams should be short multiple choice exams with limitless re-sits until everyone gets a AAA** grade. That way we'll have the brightest pupils in the world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Great! they should do this with the driving test too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    Why is it acceptable for universities to have modular examinations each year, which can include resits, but not A levels? At least with A levels it's an external exam board independent of the school who set and mark the papers. If the current system is not working why are students graduating with more 1st and upper 2nd's? Do the university's control this system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    By no means are A levels getting easier. Anyone bold enough to suggest so should ask themselves when the last time they sat an A level examination was.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    Gove wants new standards set. He's not the only one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    The thing is, A-levels are already incredibly challenging. I struggled greatly with them when I sat them in 2005-6 and did far worse in them than I had in my GCSEs. I got into university though, spent the next 3 years smoking cannabis and playing world of warcraft and graduated with a 2:1. University was a complete joke compared to A-levels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    29 Minutes ago
    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......?//

    maybe they weren't 'correct' because they were too hard, and didn't allow the govt to artificially bolster student numbers...


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