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 712.

    Toure Assolle

    Except Labour didn't bring in modular exams, my A levels were modular in 1996, my GCSE's in 1994 were a couple of exams after the 2 years education, so i've done both.

    The pressure is spread a little better doing modular, but you feel it more often. Not a bad thing IMO.

    Also, with modular, people have to turn up throughout the course.

  • rate this

    Comment number 711.

    I am an AS-Level student. In this years' January exams, OCR put a chemistry question in a physics exam. This confused many, leading many to want a retake, even directly after taking this exam.

    Should the modular system be scrapped, and only June exams remain, we take the chance of a retake if the exam board does something stupid (such as this), and disadvantage the student. Think about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 710.

    It beggars belief that this government are still going ahead with this when so many teaching bodies are so against the changes and have described them as very short sighted. However that's what they do, until it all goes wrong and then they'll blame the LibDems or Labour!

  • Comment number 709.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 708.

    Well, I suppose we should at least be grateful that the proposed changes to not involve £9k/year charges for 'A' levels!

  • rate this

    Comment number 707.


    You're putting too much emphasis on what appears to be an isolated small test.
    Your daughter did really well with respect to her peers. You should be proud she got such a high mark, not complaining that she put too much effort in and got short-changed !
    That's why grading to the curve should be applied to national exams - situations like this would be less likely to occur

  • rate this

    Comment number 706.

    Don't believe the right-wing propaganda. Labour have been the best thing to ever happen to English education.

  • rate this

    Comment number 705.

    Glad to finally see a reverse in the "dumbing down" which has taken place over the past few years - it's about time! Current students say they wouldn't be able to "handle the pressure" - I find these statements totally pathetic (how on earth did previous generations cope??) It's symptomatic of this modern "X Factor" mentality among young people that success in life should come easily! Get a grip!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 704.

    I was in Year 13 in the last year of the old A-Level system and had to do exams that counted 100% toward my final grade for 2 years of work. I can tell you that I would never want to go through that kind of pressure again. Thankfully my university course was through a combination of continuous assessment and end of year exams and that was a much less stressful experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 703.

    It would make a real change for education policy to be based on some actual independent research instead of political dogma - whichever party is in power - but sadly it is many, many years since this was the case.

  • rate this

    Comment number 702.

    The main argument is that students do not develop an understanding of the subject. However being in Year 13 I know this to be completely untrue. Most of the knowledge developed at AS is expanded upon in A2, and so to not understand the subject would be to fail it anyway. Also several questions which come up in A2 exams, require you to use the knowledge developed at AS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 701.

    Thanks for your encouraging words but as a parent I become angry and bitter on her behalf. I have 2 kids doing GCSEs and they are hostages of that man's twaddle. Teachers still don't know if they are coming or going, kids count points and work the system. Half of Year 11 is study leave, mocks and revisions ...of what? there is no time to teach the syllabus.

  • rate this

    Comment number 700.

    Interesting that in an age when information is more readily available than ever before, exams are going to be changed to require students to remember facts for longer. What a shame we have an education secretary who doesn't seem to have noticed the internet and whose thinking seems to be informed by a way of life that vanished over 50 years ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 699.

    5 Hours ago
    If this helps the young to, Read, Write, Spell, Count, Talk, Think, Vote and conduct themselves properly, I'm all for it. If we could introduce a qualification in Creation Science as well as Evolutionary science, they would also be well placed to make correct moral decisions in life, once they get to know their Creator. Will the reforms go this far??

    Let's hope not!

  • rate this

    Comment number 698.

    Were the teachers actually in school to respond to this news? - I am surprised. "Oh look few snowflakes, let's close the school"

  • rate this

    Comment number 697.

    its about time this change happened
    Modular exams just encourage students to learn 3months material, memorise it for one exam then forget it forever while they move onto the next module. What there needs to be is proper integration between sections of the curriculum and teachers to actually well... teaching the subject to the right level and not just regurgitating past exam questions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 696.

    Do some people genuinely think that modular exams mean you can take an exam then forget everything learned for that exam? Seriously?

    Later exams rely on knowledge and understanding from earlier exams, alongside further knowledge and greater understanding.

    They also spread the workload. I don't know of any job where performance is measured on 1 day every 2 years service, why force it on students?

  • rate this

    Comment number 695.

    If the content of modular and at end of course exams is the same, yes modular would be easier. However modular gives the opportunity to concentrate on understanding and higher level thinking, which could include teacher assessment. If recollection isn't being assessed, the system would reward understanding, surely that's better, isn't it?

  • rate this

    Comment number 694.

    If thousands of people are being messed around you can bet there are mega-bucks in it for someone somewhere!

  • rate this

    Comment number 693.

    @691 Butterfly - Obviously you have not read the other comments on here. Whilst I do not particularly like Mr Gove, on this subject I believe him to be correct as do many other people. Whilst everyone is obviously entitled to YOUR opinion, please do not pretend to speak for 'everyone else'.


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