A-level plans challenged by school and university heads


Michael Gove: "I was worried that there was too much assessment, too little learning"

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Education Secretary Michael Gove has confirmed major changes to A-levels in England but the plans have had an unenthusiastic reception from head teachers and university leaders.

From 2015 pupils will take exams at the end of two-year courses.

AS-levels will remain, but as stand-alone exams, and a group of leading universities will play a bigger role in maintaining standards.

Independent school head teachers attacked the proposals as "incoherent".

Brian Lightman of the Association of School and College Leaders said: "This is a classic case of fixing something that isn't broken."

The organisation representing leading private schools, the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, called the proposals "rushed and incoherent" and said they were driven by a "timetable based on electoral politics rather than principles of sound implementation".

The University of Cambridge has also voiced strong criticism of the changes to AS-levels, issuing a statement saying it will "jeopardise over a decade's progress towards fairer access to the University of Cambridge".

'University role'

In a letter to exam regulator Ofqual, Mr Gove said A-levels in their current form did not help students to develop a "deep understanding" of their subjects.

Instead modular units will be scrapped, with the qualification returning to exams taken at the end of a two-year course.


This confirms the principles that will underpin changes to A-levels in England.

Exams will be taken at the end of two-year, non-modular courses; there will be more involvement from universities and the AS-level will become a standalone exam taken either in either one or two years.

Much of this had already been heavily signposted in the past year - but it is clearer about a specific date, with the changes to be introduced in autumn 2015.

It means that this gold standard qualification will return to an all-or-nothing set of exams at the end of the course.

It also means that apart from a stray AS-level, there will be no public exams in the lower sixth year - perhaps allowing it to return to its traditional status as a time for school plays, forming bands and writing bad poetry.

It remains to be seen to what extent universities will engage with policing the new exams - they have been lukewarm about direct involvement.

If Wales and Northern Ireland decline to follow, it will also mark a further fragmentation in the UK's exam system.

This shift away from so much piecemeal testing was welcomed by the Girls' Day School Trust.

"The educational advantages of linearity and of learning within a coherent continuous two year course are clear, and will be seized on by schools like ours that seek to put teaching above testing," said the trust's Kevin Stannard.

The AS-level exam will remain, but will no longer be taken after a year or count towards a full A-level. It will instead become a stand-alone qualification, taken alongside full A-levels after two years in the sixth form.

Many universities currently offer places using students' AS-level results. Nicola Dandridge of the higher education body, Universities UK, said the change would mean universities having to place more emphasis on other evidence such as school references which might disadvantage some pupils.

The AQA exam board said that it was "disappointed" that AS-levels would no longer be part of the wider A-level.

There will be a bigger role for leading Russell Group universities in supervising the content, although this might take the form of organising committees of specialists, rather than taking direct responsibility.

The introduction of an A-level Baccalaureate, closer to the International Baccalaureate, which was discussed last year does not appear as part of this package.

The A-level changes call for the end of assessing "modular" chunks of learning, and a return to a "linear" form, with exams at the end of the course - but Ofqual says this will not necessarily mean an end to coursework in A-levels.

Schools Minister Liz Truss said the plans would end a system where students are preparing for exams almost as soon as they begin a course.

Student: I wouldn't be able to handle the pressure

"Pupils spend too much time thinking about exams and re-sits of exams that encourage a 'learn and forget' approach to studying," the minister said.

Stephen Twigg, Labour's shadow education secretary, rejected the argument behind the changes, and warned that it would narrow options for young people.

"It's no wonder leading universities like Oxford and Cambridge say this is a mistake. We need to have more high quality options available at age 16, including all young people studying English and maths to 18."

Teachers' unions say the changes to A-levels are being taken forward in a "cavalier" fashion without adequate evidence.


Chris Keates of the teachers' union NASUWT, said: "Rather than recycling the incoherent grumblings of a few isolated and unrepresentative academics, the secretary of state should take note of the fact that there has been no clamour for reform.

"Employers have not identified A-levels as problematic," she said.


  • Advanced levels were introduced in the early 1950s to allow pupils to get exams in individual subjects
  • In 1953-54, only about 3% of the year group achieved 3 A-level passes, by 1980-81 this had risen to 10% and by 1995-96 it was 23%
  • In 2000, a revised modular A-level structure was introduced, with assessments of each unit, rather than all the exams held at the end.
  • This also introduced AS-levels, which pupils can take in their first year of sixth form or college in Year 12, and which could be a stepping stone to full A-levels the following year.
  • The changes were introduced to create a broader curriculum with more flexibility for pupils.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said the decision flew in the face of overwhelming feedback from a recent consultation that found that the "current system needs tweaking but is broadly fit for purpose".

"It is disappointing that this has ignored the overwhelming views of the teaching profession, academics, employers and universities to retain the link between AS and A level," said general secretary, Brian Lightman.

Neil Carberry, the CBI's director of employment and skills said: "Businesses want more rigorous exams but we're concerned that these changes aren't being linked up with other reforms, especially to GCSEs. We need a more coherent overall system."

Pam Tatlow of the Million+ university think tank said "These proposals risk creating a two-tier A-level system which will complicate university admissions and reduce opportunities for students."

Students in Scotland have a different exam system while the devolved governments in Wales and Northern Ireland will make their own decisions about whether to implement the changes to A-levels.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    more fiddling while rome burns .

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. For once I'm inclined to agree with something Gove has done.

    With any subject the whole is more than the sum of its parts, we need to do away with this modular obsession that has infected education and return to a holistic aproach to all learning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Big ego's make for bad government.

    We now have Cameron (Europe), Osborne(economy), Gove(education), Hunt(health) and Boles(planning) all grand standing to make a reputation or leave a legacy.

    None have any professional skill in the job they are doing - ALL think they are expert.

    Its going to be very damaging.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    And its about time that handing out first class honors like confetti came to an end too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    As an employer the most important skill I look for is the ability to cram as much information as possible and remember it for 2 days. Who would want to employ someone who had learned the skills of completing work in manageable amounts over a period of time. We leave all the work in our office then do it all in a haphazard, mad panic for the last 2 hours of the working week. Nice move Mr Gove

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    I dislike this government and Gove in particular, but regard this as a broadly positive development. A return to an exam-based A-level will increase standards and may tip the balance slightly in favour of male students after years of changes designed to discriminate against them and in favour of girls. A-levels should sort the wheat from the chaff, not be used as a way to boost students' egos.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Excellent news. Now watch the pass rates tumble and the sub-standard 'New Labour Universities' go out of business. Looking forward to graduates actually being able to read, write and reason for themselves again in the not too distant future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    'I feel at least colleges will be more committed to the subjects they offer and not make false promises in such a crucial area'

    Committed? A family friend attends the local college, she is studying biology, since last September 12 lessons/lectures have been cancelled because of no teacher available and no supply provided. This is not an isolated incident either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    In my day (graduated 1983) A level exams took place at the end of 2 years, University exams took place at the end of the third year. If you were incapable of remembering what you had been taught, or researching what had been suggested to you, you failed your exams. The results were better doctors, better engineers, better lawyers, and graduates of all
    disciplines better prepared and less arrogant

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    We already have this new system - it's called the Pre-U, run by CIE, and nearly 200 Schools take the exams already. These courses are linear and leading Universities were involved in their development. Why look to re-invent the wheel, Mr Gove, at great expense? Just look at what is already out there and build upon it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I am not a Labourite 'Leftie'. I do, however, teach AL Science so I know something! The jump from GCSE to AL is huge, so what is wrong with having exams at the end of the 1st yr? Those that do OK can get an AS while those who do really well go on to the 2nd yr (far more rigorous in science) to achieve a full AL? Or is this too logical for non-scientists/educationalists to understand?

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    Mr Gove makes lots of assertions, with very little evidence to back up anything he says, other than his own blinkered opinions.

    This latest change follows his EBC plans, which again have no basis in evidence and are being widely derided.

    Mr Gove does not have any kind of understanding of the implications of his decisions - he simply wants to impose his educational experience on everyone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    I'm truly sick to the back teeth of constant change on this level when it directly affects our children. Its no wonder this country has nothing left and skilled people are moving to pastures new. We are taxed out of our brains and more and more decisions taken, that are frankly unqualified and arrogant on a BIG scale. Whats the point of having experts when they aren't listened to? NHS ring a bell

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Yet another example of arrogant now-it-all politicians deciding to mess with things they know little about without proper discussion and consideration. Haven't they learnt anything form the last couple of years!

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Head teachers' leader Brian Lightman said: "This is a classic case of fixing something that isn't broken,"


    Not broken?!? While exam passes rise in the UK we continue to slide down the world educational league tables.

    You might as well stick your fingers in your ears and shout la la la Mr Lightman.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    I find myself increasing disagreeing with the Tory-lib govt. Education. Economy. They don't seem to listen, yet their own 'expertise' is looking shaky at best. I'm beginning to think of these policies as originating from a posh-boys groupthink scenario, where they simply revel in the chance to tear-up policies, impose needless change and take a hard line, because they enjoy it. Get them out quick.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    It has been clear for a number of years, despite denials from head teachers, that the current A Level system does NOT prepare candidates for what used to be degree courses at UK Universities during the time of the original A Level syllabus.
    Universities have had to dumb down the first year content to get students up to speed. and the inevitable result is that UK degrees are now at the US standard

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    This government has no idea whatsoever. Public school boys, who would have guessed.

    I'm not a total fan of the chunks approach ... but I don't believe that being taught to a single exam proves any greater depth.

    I would suggest that you have both, with a weighted final exam tying it all together, showing depth through knowledge and skills learnt.

    Minus the stress of the all on 1 exam.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Universities do not seem to agree with you, instead reporting students turning up with A grades and not knowing anywhere near enough about the subject.
    As a teacher, if you think the exams are harder, there is little hope for the pupils you teach.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Having worked in a university for forty years, I have found that most modules are written by university staff and validated by their peers for one reason and that is to keep themselves in a job. Are a succession of education minsters doing the same by constantly altering the education system?


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