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 112.

    To be exact and clear Brian Lightman should have been described as the General Secretary of a union of School leaders

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Anybody here got a link to the text of the letter to Ofqual? I like to see what someone says, not what somone says he says....

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Right Wing Governments thrive on making sure that the masses remain uneducated.
    Make GCSE's and A levels harder, restrict access to higher education, maintain high unemployment reduce reward for hard work.
    Complain about how poorly educated our children are. Create more discontent.
    Michael Gove , David Cameron QED

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Great for those that can pass, A levels back to the top 10% and a real gold standard as they were intended, but what is he going to do for the rest of the kids. Few good industry wide apprenticeships seem to exist despite the publicity, many of the managing agents are the same old 1980's YT providers. Seems what worked for Michael should work for everyone. A very naive man indeed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    "Kids will turn up to University with no idea how to write an essay"

    Trust me, they can't at the moment. Every year the standard of written work submitted by our 1st year students falls (despite their array of A* qualifications).

    We have to waste the first semester teaching students the things they should have been taught & tested on 10 years earlier.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    I was in the last year group to do straight A levels and I've always been glad of that fact. An A Level is an academic entry into university examination. Multiple resits of modules undermine that. I had 2 100% exams,and one with a 25% research assignment, all in 2nd year and it was fine. Exams at good universities don't permit multiple retakes, so why should the exams designed to get you there?

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    I suspect the motives of Mr Gove. Is he trying to respond to the Daily Mail readership in order to demonstrate his credentials as the next Prime Minister? If he wants to make the examination tougher, shift the grade boundaries! A Levels are qualifications for a whole range of degrees

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.


    "All Gove's school changes are politically motivated and have nothing to do with education."

    I could say the same about some teachers and education " experts " in the 70s

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    So Mr Gove, how are the Russell Group of universities going to set or advise on A level courses for those wanting to study art, train as a nurse, or a do any of the other degree courses that aren't part of the core faculties at such universities? But perhaps he doesn't think Britain needs artists, designers, nurses etc. Another shooting-from-the-hip without thinking change for the sake of change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    The common misconception that exams are getting easier beggars belief! I would challenge any commenter on here who thinks modern A-Levels are easy to go away and sit one before they devalue things they have no knowledge of.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    I don't know how rigorous A-levels are nowadays, but I'm sure that the percentage of bright kids is the same as in my youth. Bright kids will pass any form of exam system. So, if industry is unhappy with the results, it may indicate that it is the subjects being studied that is the problem. Maths & science are difficult, but necessary for a modern society. More focus on the subjects, maybe?

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    The standards of some A-level students are absolutely shocking. Many school leavers do not have basic English and Arithmentic skills which is fundamental in many jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

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

    - Funny, Universities don't operate that way.. I clearly remember writing essays and a dissertation instead of 100% exams. All you learn from exams is how to pass.

    Kids will turn up to University with no idea how to write an essay or communicate ideas. Sounds like a winner..

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Some people seem to be confused between the SYSTEM of examination and what a student LEARNS.

    Any failings stem from WHAT is examined not on the WAY it is examined.

    I know that this is a little hard for some to understand, but if you want our kids to be the brightest in the world, you don't change the exams you make the stuff they're examined on more advanced.

    Simple really.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    2 Minutes ago

    Why is cramming at the end of 2 years better than having to work year round for your qualification?
    It is good practice for university end of year exams.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    "results were better doctors, better engineers, better lawyers,& graduates of all disciplines better prepared"

    In what way would doing 1 exam at the end of 2 years make you better prepared for a life of constant examinations.

    Which jobs don't require constant increases in skill and knowledge?Name me that job where they ask you to do nothing for 2 years& then answer a few memory tests?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Numerous stupid comments from teachers and pupils demonstrating laziness and a lack of real-world experience. Exams are supposed to exhort students to strive for excellence, grades are awarded to those who put in time and effort.

    Claims of UK school exams being "hard" beggars belief, wait till you take chartered professional exams, or when you have to compete for jobs against global applicants.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    The problem in schools is the amount of subjects on the curriculum that have evolved as teachers now take on the responsibilities that parents once did. Subjects like parenting skills . The curriculum should be a broad one but not to the detriment of the core subjects. If allowed we should adopt the Public School model of Core Curriculum and no meaningless paperwork.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Why is cramming at the end of 2 years better than having to work year round for your qualification? It also places unnecessary stress on those that find the pressure of exams difficult and also will majorly affect those who have poor memory due to a number of reasons including medical. Fixing something that isn't broken and causing confusion.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Oh dear! So pupils should be able to 'remember' everything for an end of course exam? What are pupils being assessed in; their knowledge and understanding of a subject, or simply their ability to remember? Learning is not remembering! I can remember lots of stuff, doesn't mean I understand it in any great detail. Maybe that's why pupils get good grades but actually know very little?


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