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A level reform: Evolution not revolution

Our former Head of Sixth Form looks at the changes to A levels that will begin to take effect from September and the opportunities these changes bring. 

Next year the reforms to A levels, introduced by Michael Gove as Education Secretary, will begin to take effect. Instead of completing half the A level course in A3 and the other half in A2 (a change introduced by the previous Labour government in 2000), the reformed A levels will, over two years, return to something similar to what we experienced in ‘the olden days’, when we were examined at the end of two years. 

In an attempt to halt grade inflation, make A levels more rigorous and ambitious and better prepare young people for the demands of employment and further study, an extensive consultation process, which drew on advice from universities and subject associations, has taken another long, hard look at our educational ‘gold standard’. 

Even though it can seem like just another raft of unnecessary and confusing changes, it is important to remember that we have again been presented with a valuable opportunity to reflect on how best to serve our pupils in the sixth form as they prepare for higher education and beyond. Everyone knows that you can’t fatten a pig by weighing it but exams in their right place are an important tool and an important rite of passage. 

For pupils currently in B, things won’t look any different. They have chosen their subjects as usual and will sit a mixture of reformed and legacy AS units at the end of A3. Depending on the subjects they have chosen, some of these AS units will count towards their A level grade together with their A2 units; in other subjects they will not and the pupils will be required to be examined on that material again at the end of A2. This will not be much different to what happens already, with some pupils choosing to resit AS exams in the summer of A2. 

What we will also be thinking carefully about next year is how we move forward into 2016 when all the subjects we offer will be reformed. There will be advantages and drawbacks to these changes, just as there were to the changes back in 2000. What is important, though, is how we teach children to learn and provide them with a rich experience in the sixth form. 

Was it wise, for example, back in 2000, to spend a term of teaching at the end of A3 focusing on preparation for AS exams (knowing full well that trying to get pupils started immediately afterwards on the A2 courses would be a non-starter)? After 15 years of that, why would we continue to offer the new AS qualification when, as a standalone qualification, it is worth less than before (only 40% of an A level) and does not contribute towards the A level grade? And, if the reformed A levels are going to be more rigorous, why would we not jump at the chance to have more time to teach them? 

This is something we currently enjoy with the IB Diploma programme, enabling more interesting and diverse assessment methods along the way, as well as terminal exams at the end of a two-year linear course. Given that the IB Extended Essay and Theory of Knowledge qualifications (the core of the IB Diploma) are worth together more than an AS qualification in a fourth subject, which may well not be relevant to what a pupil wants to study at university, how can we instead make those elements of the IB available to a wider range of sixth form pupils studying A levels, together with other supplementary qualifications like the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) or the Gold Crest Award? 

Like an AS qualification these supplementary qualifications will not, in most cases, form part of a university offer (which will continue for the majority of our pupils to be based on three A level predicted grades) but their value as an academically enriching experience goes without saying. I hear time and again from admissions tutors that if a candidate wants to make their application more competitive, apart from demonstrating a genuine interest in their chosen field, the two most important things they need to show are evidence of independent research skills and a commitment to their community through volunteering. 

Apart from the shape and pace of the academic year in A3 and A2, I don’t think that much is going to change. Pupils will continue to rise to the challenges placed before them and we will continue to explore ways of providing more opportunities for them to enrich their time in the sixth form so that they are more than just the grades they get. That will be achieved in many different ways, depending on each pupil, so we certainly won’t be seeking to offer a one-size-fits-all programme.