- Published: Saturday, 22 November 2014 15:35
One of the few benefits of advancing age is that the duration of my teaching experience is now comfortably greater than the time needed for educational reforms to be introduced, reviewed and reversed. Michael Gove has long since been banished from public view to be replaced by the more appealing and conciliatory Nicky Morgan but the reforms of A level lurch onwards like a lorry stuck in gear.
A levels will shortly be returned to the traditional two year courses as studied by me in the 1980s and as taught by me in the 1990s. (The Labour Party is, at least nominally, committed to arresting the reforms and continuing with the AS/A2 pattern but, at the time of writing, their sinking poll ratings mean that they are unlikely to be in a position to enact this change next May.) I therefore have a clear insight into the effects of this alteration and can anticipate the likely direction of the next wave of reform even as schools gear up for the current changes. Irritatingly, and indefensibly, different subjects are being reformed at different times leaving the current Year 11 (S5) students with the unappetising prospect of tackling some reformed linear A level courses alongside some modular AS/A2 courses. Students at Birkdale will probably take an AS in all of their subjects in summer 2016, even if the qualification will not contribute to their A level grade, as this seems the clearest way to deal with the lack of uniformity. Many of them will also take 4 subjects for flexibility and possibly to gain an edge in university admission. Looking ahead, however, it seems clear that interest in the AS examination will decline steadily until we return to a fully linear world, with more or less all students across the country pursuing A level exams in 3 subjects taken at the end of 2 years. (Cambridge University has recently made an impassioned appeal for students to at least have the opportunity to tackle AS examinations but it seems unlikely that their arguments will carry the day http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-29914310.) Many of the students at Birkdale will thrive on this scheme but this may not be the case across the country.
My predictions for the future are as follows:
- The number of students failing A levels nationally will increase. Without the sifting effect of AS examinations and the unforgiving reality of an externally graded paper more students who are out of their depth or insufficiently diligent will continue until the end of the A level course before finally failing or slipping away without anything to show for their labours. This is surely a squandering of human talent and effort.
- Many students with marginal GCSE grades will not invest 2 years in A level study without any confidence of success at the end of the course. Late developers, without adequate GCSE results, will find an academic educational path closed to them. Unreformed vocational qualifications may not provide a sensible or attractive alternative for these students; hopefully the renewed current interest in offering apprenticeships will help.
- The promise of freedom to teach and to learn in Year 12 (L6) unconstrained by the pressure of external exams will be only partially realised. In order to ensure that students engage with their studies schools will reintroduce serious internal examinations, probably in December and again in June in Year 12. The preparation for, and conduct of, these examinations will inevitably eat into the extra teaching time freed up by the demise of AS. Tuition fees and competitive university entrance will ensure that A level students will not have the luxury of freewheeling through the first year of A level, following interesting tangents and developing skills in learning, as many of their counterparts did in the 1990s.
- Most students will return to tackling 3 A levels with a consequent narrowing of their educational programme. Whilst the 4AS/3A2 diet currently enjoyed or endured has not produced the dramatic broadening of educational experience that many hoped for, it has encouraged some breadth. (Most continental systems, such as the International Baccalaureate require the study of 6 subjects.) The stakes will be higher for students when choosing their 3 A level subjects. If they discover that one of their subjects is not to their taste they will face an unenviable choice of continuing for 2 years anyway or switching to another subject with a number of weeks of work to make up. (Under the current system the student could drop their least favoured subject at AS and still receive some credit for their efforts.)
- Universities will put greater emphasis on GCSE grades as the only objective evidence of applicant achievement without AS grades being available, increasing the importance of these examinations. Some students, who mature late, will be entirely ruled out of applying for the most competitive courses because their GCSE grades are insufficient.
- Schools’ predictions of A level grades will become more wayward without the guidance of AS. This will result in more candidates failing to reach their offers (over predicted) and more candidates regretting that they had not aimed higher with their university applications having outperformed their school’s predicted A level grades (under predicted).
- The new A level papers, comprising longer and more demanding questions, will generate a renewed interest in ‘question spotting’ by teachers who will hope to predict the areas to be examined and focus their students’ revision accordingly.
- By 2020 calls for a review of the A level system will become so strident that the education secretary will be unable to ignore them. A report will be commissioned and completed by 2021 which will recommend separating A level qualifications into AS and A2 components in order to address the weaknesses in the design of the linear qualifications; the new system will begin in 2023.