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 232.

    This guy is starting to scare me. What next - teachers to wear mortarboards and capes again?

    He's clearly ignoring decades of research and the forward thinking that most other countries are going for, and imposing his blinkered and, dare I say, very old-fashioned views here.

    Please, mate, education is one of the few places that does not deserve meddling with. Let the professionals do it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    224.ConnorMacLeod Acutaly the do... Look up the Flynn effect. Gradeing to a curve just punishes people in a bright group and rewards those in a weak group.

  • rate this

    Comment number 230.

    When you put people in charge who have no training or qualifications in that area what do you expect. The biggest problem with politics and education is everybody thinks they know it all as they went to school themselves. If you want to be involved in education decisions you should have a Masters in Education as a minimum.

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    Modular approach maintains momentum after GCSE's - no time to relax - just press onward.
    Gove seems to think that HIS education was the best model. The fact is the world has changed so much since he was in school that it education cannot possibly revert to a form that was based on the requirements of the industrial revolution. He's in panic and is defaulting to what he knows.

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    Why can't we have joined up systems and make life simpler, more logical and above all, everybody working to a common goal? I suspect Quangos, protectionism and empire building have a lot to do with it. It's costing this country Billions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 227.

    I personally don't see it that way. I sat my A-levels in 98 when modular was starting to creep in. Only a few allowed modular exams. Chemistry was one. I sat 2 modular exams in 97 but didn't do well in them so opted out of modular and completed the "normal" exams in 98. I couldn't see the difference in the 2 types at all. Same education was given. 4exams at the end of 98 instead of 2&2.

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    Give kids a break Mr Gove.
    They already have considerable less opportunities than their parents.
    Now you want to completely put them off education and deter them further from going to University.
    Those who think his ideas make sense probably forget that they went to Uni for free, got a good job on leaving and bought their first house for £50 k.
    Times have already changed for the worse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    153. x15
    "Can we have the Grammar schools back please.....they where the biggest ladder to get the poor bright to shine."

    they never went away! I was born in 1983 and I went to one still here. hated it. Dreadful all girls place with disruptive chavs and obsession with uni entry statistics rather than quality of teaching. I wished I'd gone to a co-ed comp and will send any children I have to one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    "...the brightest students today are brighter than they have ever been and the dimest are the dimest ever"

    What absolute rubbish - vast quantities of people don't get smarter or dumber over the timespan of a few years. Exam formatting and marking is what changes more frequently . Grading to the curve is the fairest way of marking, e.g. top 10% get an "A", next 20% get a "B" etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 223.

    @153. x15 Can we have the Grammar schools back please.....they where the Biggest ladder to get the poor bright to shine.

    You really don't understand this, most of the kids that get to Grammar school have been groomed for over a year, by teachers taking large amounts of money to train them for the 11+. Many of these children don't have a hope in hell of passing the 11+ or affording the bus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    More focus on exams and closer alignment with universities will make little difference if we are still shutting down science and engineering departments in favour of alternatives that do nothing for British industry. Get the right content in education before tinkering with how its arranged and presented!

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    Gove isn't fit for purpose!

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    I've recently just finished my A levels and i think they are difficult. Sure, some people find them easy but i struggled. Being able to have multiple tries at an exam may be seen as cheating to some but atleast people like myself can walk out of college WITH some qualifications. And it's not like A levels are worth getting because what's the point if you can't afford £9000 to go to uni.

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    There are a umber of issues - subjects studied,teaching standards, the ease with with which students attain results via multiple retakes etc. Grade escalation is a key problem. We should return to predetermining percentages of the population awarded an A , B , C etc , these to be adjusted over time based on evidence that the normal distribution has changed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.

    As someone who will be a first time voter in the next election, and someone who has just gone through A-Levels and is now at University, I can honestly say Gove is on course to ruin education. Modules allow a diverse range of topics within a subject to be taught, while allowing students intelligence to shine through, not their capacity for memory and sets them up perfectly for University.

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    Why are easier exams being seen as the fundamental reason for improving grades. Perhaps we should place some credit on improvement in teaching standards, or perhaps just face the fact the younger generation have superior intelligence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 216.

    What is with this constant desire to reduce the number of exams.

    Fewer exams = more important exams = more pressure.

    Copy the Russell group unis - I had 3 sets of exams each year!

    Furthermore, they are useful for guiding your progress. I didn't do as well in my AS levels as I'd hoped so I knew I had to put in more work for the later exams. In-class tests etc just aren't the same.

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    " Can we have the Grammar schools back please..."

    And polythechnics instead of pretend universities too .

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    I'm currently in my second year at college and I think that for some of the courses I do the changes that have been put in place do not benefit the teachers or students. For example, A2 Graphic Art is a subject which requires time and they have changed the marking sheme so students need to get a lot more marks in a reduced ammount of time just to achieve A*

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.


    "I see you don't want to teach history in schools"

    I said no such thing so wjy you attribute this attitude to me is curious.

    I'd also like to see the evidence behind any changes to education/health/etc. before any government decide to "improve" them.

    There is evidence both for and against human led climate change - teach both and let the pupils think for themselves.


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