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The lowdown on new two-year A-levels

PUBLISHED: 10:47 21 March 2016 | UPDATED: 10:47 21 March 2016


Antony Spencer, Principal of St Lawrence College, Ramsgate, explains the new two-year A-levels

Featured in the Spring 2016 issue of A+ Education

Many parents will be aware that A-levels (and for that matter GCSEs) are undergoing changes, and the detail may appear bewildering.

In fact, there is a simplistic summary of what’s happening, which is that for almost all parents of teenagers, the system is largely returning to what we experienced at school. In other words, for most pupils there will be a raft of demanding exams at the end of two years of study, probably in three subjects.

This contrasts with the current model, where, usually, four subjects are studied in the first year of Sixth Form (Year 12), with AS exams taken in them at the end of the year, representing half of the total value of a final A-level (the other half being the A2 exams taken typically at the end of year 13).

Critics argued the old cycle of exams and the ability to re-sit them denuded deep learning and encouraged “teaching to the test”. I didn’t totally agree, but the Education Secretary did, hence the changes.

Under the new system, AS exams will remain, but have been, in an ugly piece of educational jargon “decoupled”. Think amicable divorce rather than train crash. The AS exam will stand alone from the final A-level, so a pupil could take four subjects in year 12 as at present, and out of love of the exam hall take AS exams in all four at the end of the year, but this won’t in any way contribute to their final A-level result.

In fact, a number of subject leaders worry that the content of the AS curriculum doesn’t contribute to the A-level curriculum (further jargon: they aren’t “co-teachable”), so the most likely model will be pupils choosing three subjects at the start of year 12 which they only take exams in at the end of year 13.

It may well be that some will allow the flexibility for a pupil to take a fourth subject to AS level as a form of added breadth, but many schools won’t be willing to finance the inevitable small classes; this may particularly be an issue in the state sector.

Confused? There’s more to come. Added complexity comes from the transitional timings, as not all the new A-level curricula have been finalised, the big one being maths.

So a hybrid model may exist at many schools for the next couple of years, where pupils still take some AS exams as part of their overall A-level for some subjects, but not for others. Those starting sixth form in September 2017 will, though, follow the completely reformed structure.

If by now you’ve had to go back to the beginning of the article a couple of times to understand it, fear not, because this isn’t ultimately that significant a change in terms of educational reform.

Schools will adapt and new opportunities will come for those willing to look for them. The emphasis upon correct subject choice at A-level, with good guidance from schools, will be vital, as will the accuracy of internal assessment to ensure that the final A-level grades don’t come as a surprise.

I’m speculating about how the new system will settle down, with universities’ response of considerable importance (and given that they themselves are in flux, their responses won’t necessarily be uniform). Some independent schools may take the opportunity to differentiate themselves with new academic options like the EPQ research project (which most schools now offer), selected vocational courses and stand-alone qualifications around a core of three A-level subjects.

If the content is marginally tougher and A-level grades drop nationally, universities will mostly just lower their grade requirements, so a mix of B and C grades at A-level shouldn’t bar a place at a very good university.

For those of us feeling like there’s a strong whiff of nostalgia in all of this, not everything will be the same; don’t expect general studies to feature.

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