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 171.

    "Education, edukation, edukashun"

    As UK exam passses improve year on year we slip down the internationally recognised education league tables.

    You don't need an "A" level to work out that something isn't quite right with our state education system.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    I'm a final year Uni student and without the resit I would have never made it. Resits's aren't easier but provide the opportunity to try and do better. I know many advanced students that took resits try and higher their gpa. There is a pressure to excel beyond average otherwise uni's won't accept you.Uni has winter and summer exams, which seems to have worked fine for them! So why change Alevels?

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    @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."

    A-levels ARE jump up from GCSEs and they always were. 30 years ago they were the hardest exams you'd ever take.

    BTW, resitting means you either weren't ready or didn't work hard enough the first time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.

    The modular system was designed to help students learn more thoroughly and achieve higher grades. What the government are doing here will act as a handicap for future students. The education system has been evolving to get the best out of students, this archaic reform will be a backward step, and our children's education will suffer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    I was the second year to take the A Levels in the form they are now, they do work they are a big jump from GCSE's but they do work. The problem with keep changing the system is you end up with an A Level that no-one has a clue actually means, its so frustrating especially for those that are about to take them and have no idea what to expect. Pick a sytem and stick to it

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    @49. newdr88
    "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."

    Except that many Universities never liked them in the first place and are actively considering ditching the modular systems as completely useless.

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    Resits and modulariation make it easier to pass ALs, but they're not the main factors. Chief examiners dumb down syllabuses and instruct assessors and examiners to overmark poor work.Those who don't are got rid of.If these don't produce "raised standards", board statisticians may be relied on to manipulate totals before grades are awarded.

    and underlying lall this is the dumbing down of syllabu

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    Added to my earlier point; I see a lot of people mentioning the coursework & modular nature of degrees. It's not an across the board thing. For my degree I had December end of term tests (10% of total grade for subject) the remaining 90% was on an end of year exam; coincidentally this is from a large, world-renowned institution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    I got only okay AS levels (AABB - and one B was a borderline C). I re-sat many of my papers in January. After my ropey AS levels, I graduated with three As, each over 90%. I then went to Oxford and got a 1st class degree.

    Resits allowed me to show my academic potential. They weren't easier, it was just another chance to show what I had going for me. I feel sad others won't get this chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    My teacher wanted to teach the anatomy of the heart as the class was interested. It wasn't on the syllabus so she didn't have time to satisfy our curiosity. She looked genuinely sad that the necessity to teach to the exam was actually discouraging the class from taking an active interest. The system is fundamentally flawed so changing a few minor details is not going to make a difference.

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    Michael Gove is making sweeping changes to education without proper consulation. Teachers and education experts have to be consulted. I suppose it is much like this government's NHS changes for which they refused to listen to the voice of health care professionals. Everything is seen as a marketplace by those currently in power.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    All those arguing about driving tests - they are not the same as taking academic exams!

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    Good - this will save schools money in an area that desperately needs to be cut back. It's astonishing how much of a school's budget goes on exam entry fees, so capping resits and getting rid of Jan exams will be a big help from that point of view.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.


    Thank you for proving my statement that teachers in Finland are lower paid than they are in the U.S & the U.K (despite their teachers being far more academically qualified).

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.

    At University you have coursework, you sit modules and you have January exams. Students need to get used to revising over Christmas period managing assignment deadlines and getting used to modules.
    This is supposed to be to help prepare students for University but it's going to make it harder.

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    Over the last decade or so there seems to be a 3-tier system. A-level is a huge jump from GCSE, but arguably university is an even bigger jump, combined also with moving out of home.

    Resits aren't necessarily capped at uni in terms of number, but were in terms of grade, maximum possible was a third class grade 40%. Good to see the gap between college and uni being narrowed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    I am a secondary school governor and a current student at university. Nearly all university degrees are modular, with exams and coursework spread out throughout the year-- not just in the summer! The government is worried that A-levels don't prepare students for university and then they go ahead and do this? This change will promote 'cramming' and will be less reflective of pupil ability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    151. Bryje94
    There is a huge gap between GCSE and A-level,


    I totally agree.. from experience I think its the GCSE's that are far too easy...

    Taking Chemistry as my example.. I got an A in GCSE with relative ease...

    However in AS there was such a difference to what was being taught... I struggled to get my B (1st time no resits) and dropped the subject straight after...

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    Are they also going to ban resits for the Driving Test? Thought not. There is simply no logic in banning them for A Levels.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    It makes little sense to limit resits, students do end up paying for them anyway & it shows a demonstrable commitment to learning. These seem like very broad strokes to be tarring A-level education with.

    Perhaps whilst the government are talking to Universities (who, though learned, are not infallible in their advice), they should take some time to talk to students too.


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