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 151.

    To really understand how student feel about exams and the stress that come with it, speak to them. There is a huge gap between GCSE and Alevel, and many older generations would struggle with the concepts at A level. Therefore resits are helpful and should stay.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    Most of us with degrees managed a 12-15 month thesis whilst going to lectures and studying for the related exams.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    What about apprentisceships? Many are questioning the value of unis saying there are other ways into top careers. What sort of assessments do they need at 18? Typical tinker rather than stepping back and taking an overview. Talk to employers to see what they require. Will a uni directed assessment be what they need? Has anyone asked before we start altering an imperfect system?

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    I failed my UK driving test 3 times. Finally passed on the fourth as by then I had exhausted all possible mistakes and corrected accordingly. The fourth test wasn't any easier than the first, second, or third. I was just better prepared. Do with that what you will.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    @Jon Welcome to real life, where you'll have to juggle eight different sets of information to be presented on five consecutive days. And you don't even get handy subject titles.

    A 'B' grade achieved by someone in two years shows they're better at the subject than someone with a 'B' grade in three years. Plus, the module system is a nightmare; kids taking exams almost termly from Year 10 onwards.

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    AS Levels were supposed to allow students to take an extra subject with their A-Levels, such as arts students taking AS maths etc. They also used to be a 2 year course and were not supposed to be a way of keeping students off the league table results. Resits for modules within a course should also be capped, after that you should retake the entire course.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    I have taught both the current A-Levels and the International Baccalaureate (IB). The IB is much better, exactly because it is "an elite university entrance exam, rather than a qualification which... prepares all young people to make the most of their future". Those not wanting higher academic study should be directed to alternatives A-Level/IB study. You cannot have one course to fit all pupils.

  • rate this

    Comment number 144.

    #117. Dr_Ads
    I refer you to 28 amazing facts about education in Finland

  • rate this

    Comment number 143.

    137. Kooper (and of relevance to all these resit arguments)
    A survey in 2010 found that drivers who pass on their second test are safer than those who pass first time. If you have to resit it means you've spent more time studying and therefore are more likely to know your stuff. Surely it's what you know not how long it takes to learn it that counts?

  • rate this

    Comment number 142.

    "I really struggled with A Levels and took many resits"

    Then it is fair to conclude that you are academically ungifted and should not accumulate certificates suggesting the opposite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 141.

    The point is learning to a level in a time limit. You think when ever you get into the world of work, your company will allow you to 'resit' your work/training over and over? I know when I interview poeple I like to know how many resits they have done or how long they have taken to complete their Degree - makes a huge difference in the quality of person you may have working with you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 140.

    exams can be the same level of difficulty each year without repeat questions, thats what moderation is for to check for appropriate levelness.Changing boundaries should not be necessary.

    Reducing resit opportunities will get rid of the culture of students believing 'its ok I can just resit', something that appears often at Uni and is not the right ethos for the world of work.

    By Uni lecturer

  • rate this

    Comment number 139.

    These plans are absolutely disgusting. Especially regarding January exams. For example, in A-Level Computing, for the start of the year you work on theory until January, when you take your theory exam. After that, you work for the rest on your project, which is absolutely HUGE. How can you be expected to not only work on a large project but then revise for a theory exam at the same time?

  • rate this

    Comment number 138.

    137. kooper

    Some, but not as many as removing all men with small ****** from our roads.

  • rate this

    Comment number 137.

    Can we please apply the same rules to the driving test. People who have taken five, seven or more attempts to pass the test have proved they are barely competent and will never be so.

    Everyone who has spent five minutes in the car with someone who fits this description will attest I'm sure.

    This is far more important. How many road deaths could this save?

  • rate this

    Comment number 136.

    why do this? no jobs at the end of it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 135.

    "....my brain is fairly easily overloaded with information."

    "Then you should not have been given a place to do a PhD! Give it up and let someone who deserves the place take over."

    Well, to be fair, at least she is doing something which makes the most of her strengths and minimises the potential for harm should her brain get "overloaded with information".

  • rate this

    Comment number 134.

    Does this mean that young adults, as they are at this age, just starting out in their adult life, are regarded as failures amd consigned to the "scrap heap" if they fail the A level exam a second time?

  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    I really struggled with A Levels and took many resits, in part due to the number of exams being just too high. Revising for 8+ different exams on 5 different subjects all to be taken within 2 weeks is just, in my personal opinion, not a feat the average human brain is designed for. Too much information.
    The solution, obviously double the number of exams in a short period! Well done! /sarcasm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    I didn't resit my A'levels but did resit exams at Uni (where you only get 1 resit). The issue with resits is often, the resit is for fewer exams than the original sitting, hence more chance to know what to do. This I think is ok once, maybe twice, but more than that and you are getting an unfair advantage over others who took and passed first time around. These changes seem reasonable to me.


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