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 211.

    I cannot see the problem with resits. It's important to remember kids are at school to learn. What benefit is gained when a child fails an exam and then has no opportunity to revisit the stuff they got wrong and learn from his or her mistakes? We need to ensure kids leave school having been educated. If this takes longer for some kids than others then so be it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 210.

    How many more TORY promises will be broken.Education , NHS, Immigration.., The armed forces.are just a few. The people that voted them in should hang their heads in shame.

  • rate this

    Comment number 209.

    Repeated resits?! In that case, to compare A-Levels and Highers as like for like is ridiculous. Scottish students get ONE chance to prove that they are at the required level. Universities should definitely have to take this into account.

  • rate this

    Comment number 208.

    There's nothing wrong with re-sits, the exams aren't any easier.

    I personally re-sat several exams during my A-Levels, as I felt my results would benefit from the increased knowledge of my subjects I had 6 months on, they did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 207.

    199 Paul - In most jobs you get lots of chances to correct errors - thats why we do draft versions and maybe pilot new techniques.
    Jobs where errors can be catastrophic are usually restricted to highly trained/experienced personnel (or should be!).
    The 'examination' is a highly artificial and arbitrary construct - designed to assess knowledge which can be done in many ways

  • rate this

    Comment number 206.

    The problem with both A-Levels and GCSEs is that the syllabus is so narrowly defined that the teachers can use previous papers to pretty much work out what will be on the exam papers the pupils will sit.

    The result is they teach the exam, instead of the subject.

  • rate this

    Comment number 205.

    As a mature student of 30 years old, I was examined after two years. I have noticed that fellow students and family members under the newer system appear to have limited knowledge and capacity for verbal expression, despite better grades! This has also been publicly noted by 3 of my tutors over the last 3 years. Grades are inflated and standards lower, which is not fair on the students above all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 204.

    Good idea chaps...this should help keep the plebs in their place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 203.

    I'm 16 and am 2 months into my A-levels and the idea that next year I am going to have to sit all my A2 exams in June is worrying. AS is hard as it is and i'm sure A2 will be even harder. Whilst I do understand that re-sits overused by some schools, what if someone is ill or a member of their family passes away, what are they supposed to do.. do they have to wait another YEAR re-sit

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    193 AndyC555:
    Codswallop. Both laureates who you claim to be died years ago.

    Your comments are akin like today's academic qualifications - not worth the paper they are written on. Alas, if they were, you would not have missed - and understood - the point of the original comment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 201.

    Many resits raises the chances of being lucky or having one good day among many bad, while a single resit allows for someone who simply had an off day to recover from it.

    How confident would you if the driver behind you on the road passed their driving test on the 8th time. This only shows they drove safely for 1 hr in 8. Why should employers take risks with the ability of people they employ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 200.

    I do not have A levels but my son has, the work load and pressure was unbelievable but I still believe that one exam at the end of the first year and a final exam at the end would be much better than endless modules and of course endless coursework which heapes huge amount of work on both the pupil and teacher, the latter who has to mark everyone and make suggestions as to how to make it better

  • rate this

    Comment number 199.

    173. Lizk57
    All it says is that if you don't get it right first time, you might as well give up rather than try to reach the required standard. What kind of lesson in life is that?"

    The lesson that you don't always get second chances in life. It's not a video game where you can restart if you mess up. If you want to do well, you have to work hard.

  • rate this

    Comment number 198.

    183. Martin Hollands

    That would only work if for the rest of your life your grades were only ever compared with other people who took the exam the same year as you.

    You could have 3 people who sat exams in 3 different years achieving the same mark yet having 3 different grades...

    This won't help any university/employer decide who is the best candidate...

  • rate this

    Comment number 197.

    Too many top grades? How many universities actually require 3 A* grades?

  • rate this

    Comment number 196.

    As a teacher of A-Level Chemistry, required by uni's for entry on to Medicine courses, I am very concerned that limiting the number of re-sits a student can take will lead to a dumbing down of challenging content.

    A single concept eg NMR applied slightly incorrectly can dump an A grade student to a D. If this content is to stay and stay challenging then students need to be allowed a 2nd chance.

  • rate this

    Comment number 195.

    As a university student myself I struggle to understand the idea that resitting and taking exams over two semesters does not prepare students for uni. This is exactly what happens at university - you take the exams for courses you sat in a term at the end of that term. Further, about 50% of my year had to resit exams in years 1 and 2 (some even 3) and were let back into the next year no problem

  • rate this

    Comment number 194.

    Since barmy Gove is hell bent on going back to the future, or the 1950's is he also going to see Billy Bunter is read in school and what about Enid Blyton or Swallows and Amazons and how about jolly japes with your friends perhaps we could have some St Trinians schools as well. I lived through the 1950's with it's inequality and that is where YOUR schools are heading with this idiot in charge

  • rate this

    Comment number 193.

    I had a physics teacher in the late 70's teaching digital electronics after school. The deputy head found out and had it stopped! The result was I gave up on my A levels, withdrew application for a top University, and later in life didn't even bother to collect my PhD"

    A teacher I had once ended a lesson 5 minutes early so in later life I didn't even bother to collect my Nobel Prize

  • rate this

    Comment number 192.

    185. Angryification
    As an AS student myself, I think sitting all exams at the end of the two years would put far too much pressure on students and teachers. Too many exams to study for at one time."

    What do you think the previous generations did? If what we we did then is now considered 'too hard', then no wonder those people think the current system is 'too easy'


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