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A-Level Reforms – Changing for the better?

Michael Gove’s proposed A-level reforms are due to be introduced into the teaching curriculum in 2015. However, there has been little evidence to prove that the change in the teaching and examination methods will provide any added benefit for pupils. In fact many influential voices have joined the A-level debate. Particularly those from Schools and Universities who have argued the contrary, that these reforms are short-sighted and could severely harm pupil’s education, their learning and chances of getting into top Universities.

A-levels have been the standard qualification pupils need to obtain for access to higher education since the 1950’s. In the past 20 years however, there has been a crisis of confidence in these examinations. With more and more students dropping out of school prior to taking their A-levels, in conjunction with those that sit their A-Level examinations are failing to meet necessary grades for entry into higher education.

The A-level reform timeline

The reforms in 2000, and the introduction of the AS saw a move away from the traditional examination methods and a wider range of subjects introduced to revive the qualification and make it more accessible to a wider cohort of students. However, evidence of grade inflation as well as talk of  ‘modular mayhem’ meant that many institutions found the AS system somewhat lacking. The less intensive academic structure of the AS level meant that students were perhaps less prepared for the demands of university courses, and even the A2 level, with many failing AS Level. Schools clamoured for an alternative and as a result of this the Cambridge Pre-U examinations were introduced, in 2008.

Traditional A-level structure?

However Michael Gove’s 2015 A level reform proposals now suggest a revision back to the traditional A level structure, a two year course offering robust and in depth knowledge of the chosen subject. This is to be offered alongside the AS level which will be taught in the first year and will be co-teachable, taught alongside the A-level course. The first year will cover the same content as the two year A-level, however choosing this option now no longer allows students to use their first year results as a contribution to count towards the full A-level qualification.

While Gove’s reasons for this are understandable, and are clearly an attempt to move towards a more robust qualification which is appropriate for different cohorts of students, there are severe issues which have made academic institutions very nervous. Disruption for both students and teachers will be unavoidable. Schools will have to come up with revised, and undoubtedly complicated teaching schedules with resources and teachers catering for both the AS and A level. The assessment system will now be changed with a single examination at the end of the two year period for A levels, but an assessment for AS at the end of the first year which will be a standalone result. Gove’s argument that a return to the linear two-year A level system will provide a narrower, more focused purpose is negated by the fact that co-teachability will work directly against that. Insufficient teaching resources could also be an issue across many establishments with lack of books and papers budgting constraints, resulting in Schools and pubils being put at an immediate disadvantage.. The fact that the A level reforms are only currently being adopted across England could also mean that pupils will be treated unfavorably compared to those in the rest of the country when competing for top university places.

The likelihood is that due to the proposed new structure, many Schools will now drop the AS level option altogether, therefore entirely reverting back to the ‘one size fits all’ system. Students will also therefore feel the added pressure of the single examination being the determining factor as to whether they will get in to their desired university, or higher education course, and this could work against them, particularly those who are less academically able.

Why is the A-level reform beneficial?

Perhaps the only positive that may come from the proposed A-level reform is that the return to the structured two year course should see a better standard of knowledge and understanding instilled within pupils, leaving them arguably better prepared for continuing into higher education. However this may only be applicable to the more academically gifted with others having their chances of reaching their full potential unavoidably damaged by the new structure. The reforms seem to have overlooked the fact that it has already been proven that a single system and assessment method simply does not work across a group of students with different interests, and abilities. Furthermore, the obvious resistance from those who now have to deliver the reforms at ground level really does speak for itself.

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