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 91.

    One aspect of all this that is being overlooked is the calibre of the person who actually marks the paper, which can be poor at both GCSE and AS/A2 Level in some subjects. I don't support the idea of multiple re-sits but it at least gives pupils a second chance if they have fallen foul of an incompetent examiner and the board closes ranks when the script is re-marked.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    A cap on resits is plain stupid. What of those wanting another go later in life? Barred for ever from it?

    Still, presumably they will apply the principle to the driving tests!

    Exams only prove you are good at passing exams, hoop jumping, nothing else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    With regard to the entire subject of Modular testing, resits @ each year end or after 2 years:

    Irrespective of the Driving Test, a future employer (be it a University or Builder) wants a qualification that means the person can do it, do it right & do it right the 1st (or maybe) the 2nd time.

    Having a piece of paper might *might* mean you take 10 tries is worthless & devalues those that can do it

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    84.Raymond Hopkins

    No, you don't. You get a whole lot of people who aren't really academic enough to have a degree in real terms, but who wave around their 2:1s from old polys.

    They are conned into thinking their degree is worth something by university salespeople. Employers aren't conned, though, which is why we have so many unemployed graduates.

    Trades would suit many much better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    I was at the market last week, and wished to buy 10 lemons at .30p each.
    The young lady serving me began to count on her fingers "31, 32 "etc.
    Maybe we should address the fact that, on the basis of my unscientific experience, some kids have been failed! (And at Least, Gove is attempting to rectify this!)

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    When will society realise that it's chemists, physicists, computer scientists, doctors and engineers we need. We don't need too many historians, english lit specialists. The taxpayer should be funding what society needs, not vanity degrees.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    I can't understand the prejudice against resits.
    If someone studies hard and passes the exam, surely they are entitled to redemption from past laziness or misfortune? Or are we adopting the ways of alien unforgiving cultures?
    However, I can understand not allowing multiple resits of sub-components within a particular academic term.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    79. Opondo
    Decades of liberals assuming everyone is equal has led us where we are now - everyone must go to uni. It devalues the qualifications of people who really earn them.
    Not everyone will go to university, of course, but as to devaluation, certainly not. What you get is a highly educated population instead, and that cannot be bad for the country.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.


    "We do not have a UK education system, Scotland is separate from England"

    Correct, so why does England have a Scot as Secretary of State for Education?

    Hopefully, the likes of Gove, Blair, Brown, Darling, Reid, Duncan-Smith and all of the other Scots that have damaged this country so much won't be able to do so post-independence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Do we have the best system of education on the planet? No. Can we improve? Yes. But how in the teeth of 1.6 million memebers of the teachers pension fund. Fear not USA education is stuffed by unions too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    @ 39.Mattzo
    "A levels are tough"

    Sorry...they really aren't. The syllabus is constantly shrunk and harder things are simply removed. This has a knock on effect for universities who then have to fill in this gap instead of teaching the advanced things that they should be. Furthermore, the way they have been butchered into multiple bitesize modules means students can't link together concepts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    74. CH405
    "Would you propose that we limit driving test re-sits also? Some of the safest drivers I know didn't pass util their third or fourth attempt, while I also know some who passed first time who are positively dangerous."
    Driving is a practical skill, it is not academic. Practical skill levels increase with practice. In academic exams we expect some to fail and some to do very well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    The idea of unlimited resits is ridiculous; if anyone applies themselves and has a degree of aptitude, they won't fail an exam twice.

    Decades of liberals assuming everyone is equal has led us where we are now - everyone must go to uni. It devalues the qualifications of people who really earn them.

    What's wrong with skilled tradesmen anyway? We need them just as much as we need academics.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Education has become a political football, subject to maoist style permanent revolution. It seems to me that when changes are proposed/introduced, we should be provided with strong evidence that changes are needed. Too often it seems, it's more about "perceptions" or a Minister's preconceptions. Our children & future employers deserve better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    We have become an over-tested, under-performing jurisdiction for 20 years. Once exams were an indicator, now they are an end. Education has been stifled by assessment. I support single terminal exam, with educational attainment being assessed by a broader set of indicators. It is no use saying some students will be disadvantaged. Of course some will. Equally others need to be challenged.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    How about something much more contoversial?
    Why not teach children in their 1st Year at Primary school all the subjects they need to know.
    A very young child soaks up info like a sponge, which is why when we attain old age we can remember things we did at below 10.
    Children between 3 +7 learn easily.
    Why does Ed system not know this?
    We categorise kids as "special needs" why not just "Special"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Change change change. When will the message get across to someone with influence enough to remove the Minister of State's right to upset the education of this country because he has some cranky idea of his own?
    Leave education to those with Training and researched ideas in EDUCATION not politicians who 's knowledge is based on how he was taught.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    67.Steve Richards
    "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"

    Would you propose that we limit driving test re-sits also? Some of the safest drivers I know didn't pass ubtil their third or fourth attempt, while I also know some who passed first time who are positively dangerous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Thank god all these changes have happened in the past few years, including entry requirements for Universities rising, or else I wouldn't be siting at my desk now writing my Dissertation.

    Massive sympathies for A Level students who will be affected by this, A Levels were genuinely the hardest two years or my life ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    "government believes there are "serious problems" with the exams and that they are not preparing pupils properly for university"
    - excellent; at last a definition of what A-levels are for. Do we now need to define a new exam for those who are not going to university? Alternatively how about a university entrance exam.


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