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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  • Comment number 331.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 330.

    One resit is fine. If the pupil cannot take the intellectual rigour of the exam they should never have been entered for it. We can all have a bad day. Coincidences are not acceptable. These exams are there to identify the best.

  • rate this

    Comment number 329.

    I'm a teacher with no problem with this, if that is what the government wants then fine. However, what I do have a problem with is the entire culture that refuses to allow students to fail. Resits now counter this. If these are withdrawn then students must be allowed to fail and fail without the blame going elsewhere. If a kid has one chance only and they fail to prepare don't blame me please!

  • rate this

    Comment number 328.

    Exams should never have been messed with by politicians in the first place. They were not broken and didn't need fixing. They should have been kept rigorous. Only 8% of pupils or thereabouts should have gone and should still go to university, the elite, the cream. Dumbing down exams to allow more pupils to 'qualify' for tertiary education was a grave move by politicians. Indeed a stupid move.

  • rate this

    Comment number 327.

    Given that there are so many factors that can prevent a student performing to their best in the designated 3-hour exam time, it seems unfair to limit the number of resits. A Levels are critical in deciding the future career and life of student, so we should go out of our way to allow resits.

    Unfortunately, quasi-facist Gove and his agencies have taken a hard-nose attitude to frailty in education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 326.

    This is really what children need in their education - uncertainty and disruption.

  • rate this

    Comment number 325.

    I agree with Comment # 14.
    A priviledged elitist isolated clique is no source of leadership. Just look at the fools.
    In 2012 we should not tolerate this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 324.

    Yes yes yes... ANYTHING to keep our children's education as disrupted as possible.

    Can't have an educated electorate can we ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 323.

    The move away from multiple resits reduces exam commitment and gives uninterrupted teaching time, enhancing the final grade. My school substantially moved away from A level to Cambridge Pre-U with a rigorous terminal exam and no modular resit option (resitting the whole A level has always been possible of course). Exam success improved and, more importantly, so did the quality of academic skills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    Exams only test the ability to cram and take exams.

    Assessment should be varied - some exams, some course work. It's a more realistic and general test of someone's ability.

    I happen to be good in exam situations and course assessment lowered my university grades, but both are important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    As an A-level Maths teacher I always know exactly what topics the students are examined on in each paper because everything in the syllabus is tested.

    The last thing I want to see is final exam sucess based on me correctly guessing which topics will turn up in a single paper. The students I have who do well are the ones who learn everything and apply their knowledge appropriately.

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    Tory idiots. Why not just have A Levels every five years and save even more?

  • rate this

    Comment number 319.

    So we will have an exam based system which is cunningly designed to favour those with the greatest degree of resources and academic support for the candidates.

    Which just coincidentally from a Tory Government where 90% of the Cabinet went to Fee Paying Schools ,favours fee paying schools.

    Well that's a surprise

    Many better state education systems in Europe have no final exams at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 318.

    The problems start at home: no reading, no love of learning, and no mental maths skills. Battering education/teachers means parents absolve themselves of thier responsibility to teach their children.

    No politician will state this simple fact of life and yet teachers know how well children will do as soon as they meet the new year 7 parents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    Which would you prefer? A qualification where you know the student has passed at the first or second attempt and includes a guarantee that all the work was done by that student? Or a qualification where you don't know how many exams were taken or who actually did the coursework? Currently we can't trust what qualifications actually mean which undermines the point of having them at all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    Working within the exam system I agree it needs a revamp but why do we have to have all the exams in the summer. I watch pupils with severe summer allergies being sick with having to sit and do exams at a time when they are incapable of anything except trying to breathe. In this day and age, when children seem to have many more bugs they deserve some consideration with a retake in November.

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    Schoolies comment 310.

    If anything is ludicrous its your post, if you have to keep on resitting then clearly the student is not bright enough, choose another subject. I have no problem with try again but I'm afraid they do not 'deserve' as many chances as they like, sooner or later someone has to break the news and it might as well be after the first resit, saving everyone's time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    Current year 10 face new GCSEs similar in structure to proposed new A levels. Wouldn't it be fairer to introduce these changes for that year group onwards and not immediately? Knee jerk changes never work well. Why does the government believe it knows better than professionals? Change is needed but in a step by step manner. Common sense required methinks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 313.

    At last we have some sense coming back into our exam procedures. The resit debacle is laughable, just to keep resitting until you pass is not helpful to either the student or to prospective employers. As an employer I'm increasingly fed up with sub standard graduates, they've learned parrot fashion with no real understanding of the subject. One resit, if failed, tough, you're not bright enough!

  • rate this

    Comment number 312.

    I have cousins studying for their A-levels. They say a third of the year is spent on how to do exams, Having exams in the summer only, will mean they can have more time to study more of the subject. Which is a good thing.


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