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 252.

    I took my AS Level Early Modern History exam yesterday (for fun at age 40!), guess I'd better get on and take the A2 before 2015 so I get an A Level out of it. I would have liked to take the A2 in Jan 2014 but thanks to the Government scrapping A Level exams in January, I now have to wait 18 months. Not much of an incentive to learn! It wasn't broke Government so why fix it! :(

  • rate this

    Comment number 251.

    @ 237. Pete I never had any "grooming". Just passed the 11+ and that was that

    So was that recently or some time ago, I have recent experience, but it was in a well todo area, enabling the well todo to get a better education for free, by having just enough money to get the 11+ training

  • rate this

    Comment number 250.

    As a private tutor I can see the great failings of the module system. I have witnessed many teenagers retake modules over and over simply because they won`t get off their Playstation and do the work.

    The classic current teaching method is to reduce the standard to the level of the lazy-bones so that they have a piece of paper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 249.

    i was taught and primed for the 11 plus exam and my teachers told my parents i was expecterd to pass but then comprehensives come in and much to my joy i was allowed to go to the same school as my brothers and sisters . gove is trying hard for any sort of legacy good or bad he doesnt care about ordinary people just himself and his dogma .

  • rate this

    Comment number 248.

    Change in the education system should be driven by the professional teaching bodies, parent/pupil groups and prospective employers. Gove is an out of touch politician who makes changes in order to be seen to be doing something. He is not helping. The subject should be left to groups who know what the issues are because they are directly involved.

  • rate this

    Comment number 247.

    Great idea to get rid of AS, a pointless exercise in teaching-to-the-exam. The best year of my education was the year after O levels, when we learned things for the pleasure of learning them, all things that have enriched my life far more than A level or Degree : existentialism, Russian, the history of carpet making, how to blow smoke rings ...

  • rate this

    Comment number 246.

    I think Mr Gove needs to have a 'deeper understanding' of education. This is inflexible, not thought through. Students can gain a deeper understanding through the modular system. Funny that this news is also released on the same day as a major news story on Europe. Does Mr Gove hope people won't notice it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 245.

    "We trained hard - but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams, we would be reorganised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by reorganising, and a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation."
    Caius Petronius Arbiter (Roman Administrator). c.60 A.D.

  • rate this

    Comment number 244.

    Being able to have multiple tries at an exam may be seen as cheating to some

    In a way, it is like cheating - but you are the one who has been cheated - it doesn't prepare you for life after school.

    When you get a job you will find that if you mess something up, your boss won't give you multiple tries to correct it. A mistake may cost money and get you fired.

  • rate this

    Comment number 243.

    All forms of testing has flaws since those on the opposite scale are disadvantaged as a result. For instance, British/English system has encouraged those who like digging into one subject deeply and respect diversity, whereas Asian systems credit those who are well-rounded in all subjects. Maintaining current A-Level system and end of year exams seem to be an ill-balanced approach of the two.

  • rate this

    Comment number 242.

    If the current method is fine, why do universities find that undergraduates on some courses need referesher courses to bring them up to the minimum level of knowledge required to commence the course ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 241.

    @32 Mister Point

    Universities became modular _after_ A-levels etc went that way. No-one really thinks it works at all well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 240.

    Gove seems obsessed with turning the clock back to a time when only a minority of people benefitted from the education system. He lacks an understanding of the complexity of people learning at different levels and across different subjects. Why is he in charge and why is he being allowed to massacre an intracately involved system? He is deaf, unempathetic and pompous.

  • rate this

    Comment number 239.

    Please, can we not have more than 12 months without changing A levels. Give it 4, even 5 years between changes to any part of the system - how does anyone know what works and what doesnt if it is changed every few months?

    Politicians must be removed from positions of influence in Education, they do more damage in the name of progress than we can ever quantify as the damage changes too often.

  • rate this

    Comment number 238.

    Numerous vacuous comments dissociating "learning" from "remembering", are they serious about the inequities of memorising 2 years of A-level content?

    At university each of the 4 subjects PER TERM was so much harder than all 3 or 4 A-level subjects over 2 years.

    The hypocritical bloggers won't stand for any barrister, doctor, or consultant engineer complaining about having to "remember" things.

  • rate this

    Comment number 237.


    "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+"

    I never had any "grooming". Just passed the 11+ and that was that .

  • rate this

    Comment number 236.

    I am currently in Uni, I know a lot of people who entered Sixth form to do A levels without really knowing if they were for them. If it wasn't for them, they generally waited till the end of Year 12, when they had AS levels, before they dropped out.

    With the proposed changes, students who realise later on that A levels aren't for them will leave with nothing to show for their year in education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 235.

    Is the UK education curriculum good enough for the 21st Century? Of course not, but this is typical short termism where politicians tinker around the edges with no real benefits. If only politicians could be radical thinkers and implement real change that makes a difference. Kids of today need their help to compete in a global economy and they deserve it too!

  • rate this

    Comment number 234.


    There are no "Facts" about creation science - it is twaddle. There is no "lie" of evolution, though feel free to believe what you want, even the Tooth Fairy if it makes you feel happier.

    Keep all religions out of school. Either they are all true or they are all false - I side with the latter

  • rate this

    Comment number 233.

    @198 Mike

    How about homeopothy, crystals, leylines, magic and witchcraft.
    I believe in them and so should everyone else, or pehaps we should stick to evidence based science.

    Evidence Based Science only Mike, Couldn't agree more, No Evolution then. Amen to that. All of your beliefs are not compatible with it either. Confused Perhaps??


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