A-level overhaul: Cap on resits and shift to summer-only exams

classroom These plans are only for England

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England's exams watchdog Ofqual has announced a shift to summer-only exams and a cap on resits for A-level students in England.

They are the first of what are expected to be widespread changes to the exams taken by 18-year-olds.

The watchdog has published the results of a consultation on proposed changes.

It says there was support for fewer resits and exam seasons - but opposition to the idea of scrapping of AS-levels.

Most people thought the exams were "largely fit for purpose", it said.

Pupils are to be allowed just one resit per paper.

Teachers have criticised the plans, saying there is no evidence that A-levels need changing and that schools and pupils face "huge turbulence".

The government believes there are "serious problems" with the exams, that they do not prepare pupils properly for university and that the fact that they are taken "in chunks" over two years, with resits, has led to "grade inflation".

It favours the idea of exams being taken at the end of two years of study and wants more input from universities.

There were concerns that an emphasis on frequent exams meant students could not study a subject in enough depth.

Universities have said they broadly support the "thrust" of Friday's announcement, but do not want to "take ownership" of the qualifications.

A-levels are currently made up of AS-levels (taken in students' first year of study) and exams taken in the second year, known as A2s. Papers are taken in January and June.

Ofqual canvassed opinion on proposals, which included some to scrap AS-levels, bring in new A-level courses in 2014 in some "priority subjects", with other courses introduced later and for universities to be more involved with their design.

It describes its announcement as "the first phase of proposed wider A-level reforms".

The scrapping of January exams and the limit on resits come in from September 2013, but they will affect students who began their A-level studies this September. They will not have January exams in their second year as expected.

'Largely fit-for-purpose'

The body's chief regulator, Glenys Stacey, said: "Earlier this year we set out our proposals for A-level reform. The results show that respondents are very supportive of the proposals we outlined to remove the January assessments.

Start Quote

Academics at our best universities have been concerned that there are real problems with A-levels”

End Quote Department for Education

"The consultation followed on from Ofqual's research into perceptions of A-levels. This showed that the qualifications are considered to be largely fit-for-purpose but that there were some structural changes that could be made to improve them."

She said there was support for the idea of universities being involved with the design of A-levels - "but less support for universities endorsing each A-level".

Universities are already involved with the design of the exams, sitting on expert panels drawn up by exam boards.

Head teachers represented by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) back the ending of the January exams.

And they say they are pleased "to see strong consensus that in the main A-levels are fit for purpose" and support for keeping the AS-level.

"A-levels are a well known and well respected international brand and it would be foolish to damage confidence in them for no compelling reason," said ASCL leader Brian Lightman.

'Huge turbulence'

Chris Keates, the head of the NASUWT teachers' union, said Ofqual had shown no hard evidence that the wholesale change of A-levels was needed and that teachers and students would now face "huge turbulence and uncertainty".

Reducing resit opportunities would disadvantage pupils and the government seemed determined "to reduce the A-level to an elite university entrance exam" rather than a qualification for all young people, she added.

Andrew Hall, head of the AQA exam body, said: "The issue of timescales for the implementation of A-level reforms and the method of engagement with universities should be addressed as a matter of urgency.

"We agree that everyone should be entitled to resit an exam...but we have been concerned for some time that the culture of resits was distorting exam results."

The government has welcomed the changes, saying Ofqual's report shows that its reform plans are right.

A spokeswoman said: "Academics at our best universities have been concerned that there are real problems with A-levels.

"We are pleased that January exams and multiple resits will be scrapped, that people want less internal assessment and that universities have given such a clear signal that they want to be involved in designing A-levels.

"It is enormously encouraging that there is such support for a robust and relevant new system which will allow young people to demonstrate real knowledge and understanding of their subjects."


Universities UK (UUK), which represents university leaders, says it supports the "broad thrust" of the plans, but that universities do not want to "take ownership" of the qualifications and that the timetable for change is "too ambitious".

Its chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, said: "Universities have an important role to play in developing A-level curriculum and in ensuring that A-level content supports progression to higher education. University academics and staff are already extensively engaged in this way and have been working with the awarding organisations for many years.

But she added: "A-levels should remain broad enough to prepare students for the next stage of life, whether in higher education, employment or other forms of education."

Wales and Northern Ireland are conducting their own separate reviews into the future of exams for 14 to 18-year-olds so these changes will just affect students in England, potentially leading to different A-level exams being taken by pupils in different parts of the UK.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    newdr88: I did a degree in mathematics, and that wasn't modular. I simply had four 3-hour exams each Easter term.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    Am I missing something? Resits aren't easier, it's just another attempt to prove that you have reached the required level. You either have or you haven't. Whether you demonstrate this on your first attempt or your third shouldn't matter.

    If greater banding is required to help universities or employers distinguish between applicants, that's a separate issue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    No winter exams in an attempt to prepare students for University....

    Well students best learn quickly then that at University exams come twice a year - Winter and Summer, and that the majority of courses (except medicine and dentistry) are on a modular basis.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    A few years back my daughter decided that she didn't like one of the A level subjects she was doing and didn't after all see that area as her future career, converted to an AS at the end of the first year and took English literature instead. Everyone else in the class was doing a resit, but she covered the two year course in one year and got an A. Something wrong somewhere

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Why not go the whole hog and not have any exams at all, thus obviating the need for resits? People could be chosen for any position in life according to who their family was, or how much wealth they have. It worked in the past, didn't it, and the past seems to be the direction most favoured. Why wouldn't it work now? I'll accept a peerage for the suggestion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    To 39. Mattzo "A levels are tough".

    No, they are not. They are an absolute joke, and do not prepare you for university. How do I know ? I teach in a university. Sure, A levels may be the hardest thing you have done (yet!) but that does not make them a robust and internationally-respected qualification.

    The endless round of resits makes the grade that you are awarded irrelevant to your ability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    So glad I will have finished my A levels by then, why piss about with them when they only changed them in 2000!?

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Our standing in international education tables has been slipping for the last 20 years (PISA rankings).

    Universities and employers have not noticed any increase in the intelligence of school leavers.

    Yet we've been expected to buy into this story that year-on-year for the last two decades each year's pupils were slightly brighter than the previous year.

    Never added up, did it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    So Alevels are officially entrance exams for university! NO NO says the universities, we want to use them and be consulted about them but we dont want to be' involved' in them!
    above; (A-level support of at least 20 UK universities,
    university leaders, has said it does not believe it would be "advisable or feasible" for the sector to "take ownership" of the qualifications.)

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    Mr Gove wouldn't know a good teacher if he fell over one let alone meddle with the exam system - does anyone really think that the upper class want brainy working class kids around asking them questions about corporate tax dodging?

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    hear hear 25. PaulWelsh90

    I attended a private school up until 16 and a state sixth form after that, I also never took any re-sits, but most importantly I found that during my time at sixth form, I was in a tiny minority of students who did not. Scores of students were resitting time and time again to get a mark they needed, rather than get it the first time around as it should be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    UK education standards have been slipping when compared to other countries for some time now. Modular exams, political interference, endless opportunites for resits and 'teaching to the test' have all played their part.

    About time we stopped dumbing down throughout society I reckon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    A levels are tough. They are a big jump up from GCSEs. There is nothing wrong with resitting - after all, it's showing determination to succeed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    If there are no problems then politicians have to create them otherwise how can they justify their jobs?

    What they should be doing is concentrating on problems that need fixing, the problem is they don’t know how to.

    They are meddling amateurs who have destroyed the very fabric of this country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    I agree with Thomas and Idra, teachers become used to the curriculum syllabus and become good at teaching it, providing better exam results, Why change what is working??? Doesn't make any sense at all!

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    The principles behind the GCSE were undermined when Kenneth Clark, when Education Minister, cheerfully announced that a C at GCSE was equivalent to an 'O' level pass.
    This effectively demoted a D,E and F to a fail.
    Which they are not.
    The grades were designed to show a student's depth of understanding of the subject.
    Gove's actions have made the GSCE a worthless qualification.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    If you believe that teaching has got better and that kids are just getting smarter, year on year, unfailingly, for decades in a row... well I've got a bridge to sell you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    Children these days are so lazy aren't they. National service & the birch never harmed me, bring them back I say rather than A'Levels

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Excellent news !!!

    At last something is being done about the decades of dumbing down of our education system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Well PaulWelsh90
    If your famly could afford private schooling then it's likely you would have been ok in state schools, those with the most money do the best, the most significant indicator of likely outcome is parental income. Besides do we want to educate poor people, let's face it nearly all realistic support for lower income familys in education has been removed.


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