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 71.

    With a son in Yr9 I'm sitting here shaking my head. he will have to make his GCSE choices next term & we have little idea what he'll be taking. Equally now we have similar cloudy thinking on A Levels. Mr Gove, please take your time & think this through you're playing with the lives of our kids. Rushing through change will only leave us in a similar mess in another 10 years!

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    64. AndyC555
    Fair comment, Andy, but taking the holistic view, what Finland is doing in education might well be looked at seriously by England. This would include genuine comprehensive schools, free school meals for all, modular courses, multiple resits, and a lot more currently decried by so many in the UK. Worth looking up the system on the net. It's available in English.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Andy C555.
    We do not have a UK education system, Scotland is separate from England.
    AS for this onsense of modualr tests with multiple resits and allegations of students being coached for exams rather than being taught the subject, this happened when I studied for an HNC 18 years ago. It did not impress potential employers back then.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Regardless of when these changes took place there would always be students affected half way through (lower 6th students) so its best to get the changes in asap.

    A final exam measures learning so much better than cushy modular coursework or modular exams and makes the result more credible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    "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."
    Wrong. If you scrape a pass after your 10th resit, are you saying you have equal ability to someone who scraped a pass at first attempt?

    I think not

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Thank goodness the proposed changes are at least some sort of compromise with exams at the end of the first year of A levels and the chance of a re-sit the following June if nessessary. I'm glad it's not going back to the old sysyem of only having exams at the end of the second year. This always felt like so much pressure (Make or break!)being tested on 2 years worth of work in a couple of hours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    Another change to solve a purely theoretical problem with a purely theoretical solution which won't work any more than the current scenario does or doesn't work. This won't improve education, it will just change the grade distribution. Universities need students to pay fees so they will just lower their entry levels. This is cosmetic fiddling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    60.Raymond Hopkins
    Our standing in international education tables has been slipping for the last 20 years (PISA rankings)"
    One of the top PISA countries, Finland, does allow multiple resits"

    The PISA tests are uniform. Each country gets to sit the same tests. Whatever they are doing in Finland to be at the top of the PISA rankings, we have not been doing in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    IME (I work in a school) approx. 1/2 of yr13s resitting exams do worse 2nd-time because they made no real effort. The others applied themselves and improved.

    1 resit/unit (as for GCSE) is an overdue change, though I would keep January specifically for resits of the previous Summer's exams, meaning that resitters wouldn't have 'old' exams to revise for at the same time as their 'new' exams.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    I have nothing against making exams more difficult, but changing them half-way through the academic year is unacceptable and someone needs sacking for the shambles we saw last year.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    To 30. Idra "Teachers are getting better at teaching their subject to their students"

    No, another myth. Because the exams are so transparent, teachers are better at telling the students how to pass their subject. This is completely different from being able to teach the subject.

    Fundamentally, the A level system does not test understanding, and basic literacy and numeracy is sadly lacking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    44. AndyC555
    Our standing in international education tables has been slipping for the last 20 years (PISA rankings).
    One of the top PISA countries, Finland, does allow multiple resits. It is not seen as a problem, but rather as an opportunity to come to grips with the subject. The need is for educated people. How long it takes is regarded as irrelevant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    It is about time there was a clear direction given to schooling and exams. Our son, along with all other current Year 11 students will be the ones that have gone through the current English GCSE debacle, and then be subjected to these other changes when they get to A level. They are making decisions NOW about A level placements next year and nothing is agreed! Devalues education, IMHO.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    #46 - Mark, if an "endless round of resits" (not true by the way), is irrelevant to ability, how relevant to 'ability' is the memory test which was the essential component of the old 'A' level system?

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    For some subjects, exams are completely irrelevant. I took a Resistant Materials A-Level and it was mostly coursework to build something. There was so little exam content that they had to bring in content from other subjects that didn't really have much relevance just to pad it out. That needs less exam focus, not more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    More Tea Anyone!

    I see some meddling afoot!

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    Resitting exams is not a bad things. Many students did retakes having got good marks before but they were told they needed to have their 4 Alevels done in one year on the same certificate.(It costs money to resit too) If I took a driving test and passed it doesn't matter how many times I took it beforehand. In fact I'd have more driving experience.

  • Comment number 54.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Every student should take four 'A' Levels, and be given a total mark out of 400. University applications should also be made after the result is known.

    That way the universities with have a far greater idea of the ability of the applicant and can make (or refuse) an offer accordingly.

    Not complicated is it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    "does anyone really think that the upper class want brainy working class kids around asking them questions about corporate tax dodging?"

    I think they'd welcome it.

    There's so much ignorance on the subject.

    Take you, for example. Outside of a few newspaper headlines, what do you know about corporate tax avoidance?


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