Until 2001 most Sixth Form students took 3 or 4 (for the ambitious or brilliant) A levels. Advanced Supplementary (AS) levels were available in most subjects but were largely ignored by students, schools and universities. The AS qualification first appeared in the 1980s, consisted of half the syllabus of an A level, was marked to full A level standard and was a typically half-hearted attempt to respond to the customary and ritualised criticism of UK Sixth Form education that it promoted specialisation at too early an age. ‘If only our young people had a broader education until 18 as in the USA or Europe all our economic and social problems would be at an end’ intoned a strand of educational opinion. (The International Baccalaureate, a European system and therefore fashionable at that time, requires the study of 6 subjects, an extended essay and some elementary philosophy of knowledge, addressing the breadth issue, but brings its own distinctive set of problems at least for some students).
The universities remained largely indifferent to breadth, being chiefly interested in recruiting good A level students onto specialised undergraduate courses; most genuine university academics will enjoy expressing shock at the vanishingly small subject knowledge of a typical 18 year old in their subject. (Insert your own ‘I had read the complete works of Lorca in the original language before I was 12 years old’ comment at this point. I am not sure that I knew much about my degree subject of Physics when I was 18 and it certainly didn’t trouble me). This, perfectly understandable, attitude has always and will always drive specialism in the Sixth Form qualifications field. Michael Gove’s ambitious plan to allow universities to help define the A level curriculum seems likely to lead to a narrowing of the programmes of study. It may also heighten the neglect of the interests of the (increasing) numbers of A level students who will not follow the traditional undergraduate degree path and instead seek employment at 18 and a combination of paid work and training thereafter, discouraged from 3 or 4 years of full-time study by the high costs and tempted by an immediate salary. The Advanced Supplementary didn’t offer sufficient content by way of preparation for university study and halving the A level content made for a rather unbalanced qualification with no mention of several core A level topics contained within ‘the missing half’. This also made it tricky to teach as candidates could not easily be placed with the full A level students for half of the time without very careful consideration of which topics would be taught at which stage.
Curriculum 2000, launched a year late in 2001, hit upon the notion of Advanced Subsidiary (also AS) as the easier half of an A level and examined at the end of the Lower Sixth. Universities were persuaded to make their standard offer 3 A levels and 1 AS grade not because they were particularly interested in the fourth subject, dropped at the end of the Lower Sixth, although this is a useful tie-breaker for well-qualified applicants, but in return for access to public examination grades at the half-way point in the A level course. These grades seem to be more reliable predictors of A level grades than either GCSE grades or the school’s predictions of A level grades; the latter are often too low in some schools or too high in the case of ambitious schools. The scheme has not added much breadth to the educational diet of most Sixth formers with few dedicated scientists, for example, indulging in a one year study of History and few humanities specialists finding a passionate interest in AS Chemistry. From the students’ point of view, if results count then it seems better to choose a fourth subject which tests skills which are a known strength and which may even overlap with another subject to be continued to A level. Whereas an Advanced Supplementary was a vertical slice of an A level, an Advanced Subsidiary is a horizontal slice. This has worked well for some subjects such as Mathematics or Physics which, by their nature, allowed for the easier topics to be grouped into a Lower Sixth programme and some harder ones to be tackled in the Upper Sixth. AS students can be taught as A level students for the first year with decisions about which subject to drop left until the end of the Lower Sixth. The scheme was less successful for subjects such as English or History which rely more on skills of analysis or criticism and for which the later the examinations are taken the better the results. The Advanced Subsidiary model did however provide an easier transition from GCSE to A level study and an externally marked and moderated reward for students half-way through the Sixth Form: useful feedback to help with the choice of university course.
Re-design work on many A level subjects for first teaching in September 2015, to students currently in Year 9, has begun with the usual aims of ‘greater rigour’ and ‘fitness for purpose’. The new qualifications will be linear with examinations at the end of the 2 years and as little coursework as possible. It seems that the new AS will be more Supplementary than Subsidiary and will probably be largely ignored; education reform completes a full circle.