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 111.

    Why don't they get the grading system sorted out? There are A*'s flying about like confetti.

    It doesn't matter when you sit them....

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    @ liz i think where people have issues dealing with pressure (like exams) this is something that should be adressed by schools to help them cope both for exams & in later life do you think that would have helped you or not? I did my alevels back in the 90's 1 was modular two were end of 2 year exams. I found the ones after 2 years a bit easier as i have a more rounded knowledge of the subject

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    There's already a cap on resits for medicine and law,it's simple,if you need to resit your AS,or A level you wont get on the course!
    As we are always over subscribed and you are obviously not bright enough,The End!

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    University concerns.... - surely they must be able to quantify what they think is wrong with the exams in detail? Anyone can say they are concerned about something or think it is wrong, but it really needs detailed, quality examples of what was wrong. Why do all these "educational establishments" that are full of so called educated people wrap complaints in fluffy generalisms?

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    The exam system doesn't need changed, but the teaching does! The sixth form centre I attended was joined on to a secondary school, but I found a lot of teaching emphasis was on year 9 SATs and GCSEs, not A Levels! Lots of teachers spent A Level teaching time completing lesson plans for lower school, making sure they ticked all the boxes, with marking criteria display boards only for SATs and GCSE.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    The grades achieved by students in their A-Levels has more to do with the motivation of the student than the A-Levels themselves. This may depend on the student but I can't see how A-Levels don't prepare students for university. In this, I am using my personal experience with A-Levles and university. Bad A-Levels - CCE- due to lack of interest, followed by a 2:1 and an MSc with Merit at UCL.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    Gove praises the Finnish and Swedish education systems, however he cherry picks those parts which suit his ideology.
    In Finland they abolished private education as being counter productive.
    Their teachers are all graduates, well paid, student teacher selection is rigorous, only 7% succeed, there is no national curriculum.
    In Sweden free schools are seen to have improved educational outcomes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    AdrianH 92
    Head of Ofqual is a solicitor by traiining but has worked at chief executive level in the public sector since 2000 (from wikip) She's worked in animal health and courts areas but did have a job at Standards for England. Sadly this seems to have concerned standards in public life rather than education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Havewe as a nation gone overboard with the concept of "fairness"and equality?
    In the1950s,the educational assumption was that poor kids should have the chance to go to Oxbridge just like thebetter off,via Grammar schools
    This was removed in 60s.As unfair.
    How is the present mess any more fair than the system that assumed at least that some kids had the ability and should be given a chance?

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    There are many topics introduced in the A-level syllabus ,where the students have to learn in detail. Most of these were never even mentioned or heard of in GSCE syllabus.
    There is a huge jump in the curriculum from GCSE to A-level.
    The students should be allowed to resit .

    This only means " I have not Failed.My success is just Postponed"

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Its about time this was sorted out, hopefully the inadequate system being replaced didn't damage too many lives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Are they going to devise an exam you need brains to pass.It seems given current pass rates that you only need to be able to spell your name at the top of the page to pass given the life skills most of these students have when they have to go out into the big world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    "A student who takes one attempt to pass is better at learning efficiently than one who takes 5. They would be better suited to a university course".

    I have worked with people who passed lots of exams - some couldn't learn the required job and some boasted that they remembered nothing of what they had "learnt". Passing a single exam only proves that you can pass that single exam.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    I sat my A Levels 7 years ago now and I sat them in a modular format. I can say for sure I wouldnt be where I am now if I had only had 1 set of final exams to get my grades. I dont deal with pressure terribly well and my brain is fairly easily overloaded with information. However, Im still intelligent enough to be a phd student in a complex biochemical field in a top 10 uni in the UK.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    88. Opondo
    84.Raymond Hopkins
    No, you don't...
    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.
    Trades are needed too, at a high level. Whatever the qualification, you still have highly educated people, whatever employers may choose.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    As someone who sat these exams I can say that exams are easier when they aren't modular.

    Mainly because you're a better mathematician/scientist/historian/any subject name after 2 years then you are after 4 months.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Comparing driving tests to school exams doesn't work. A driving test only cares that you attain a particular standard. It doesn't matter how long it takes you to get there, so long as you do. Universities want students who are capable of learning. A student who takes one attempt to pass is better at learning efficiently than one who takes 5. They would be better suited to a university course.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    I passed my driving test third time, if it wasn't for 're-sits' i wouldn't ever be able to drive for the rest of my life. Re-sits show determination to succeed and should be encouraged, if someone fails the first time but is eager and willing to learn more then by all means they should get a second chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    80. Steve Richards
    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.
    Does this mean that nobody is capable of improving themselves academically throughout their life? What an odd idea, especially given the oft-repeated claim that only 5%-10% should be given an exam pass.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    I really hope OFQUAL is made up of Educationalist who know what they are doing because time and time again they seem to be incontridiction to what teachers and heads think. So is it a case of "Mother knows best" or self serving politicians making ill informed decisions to make a name for theselfs at our kids expense?


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