AS: you like it?

New A levels were back in the news again this week (to be honest, A levels are rarely out of the news and can even grab headlines when Europe’s economy seems to be heading, literally, south).

This time it was Richard Harman, the highly-respected Head of Uppingham School and Chairman of HMC (the body that represents 269 independent schools) issuing warnings that schools are not prepared for the changes that are going to hit us in September. You can read the full press release here.

I agree with much that Harman says: GCSE reform should have come before A level, and the pace of change, together with the phased introductions (which means that a lot of schools will have a mixed economy) is regrettable (but, for political reasons, probably understandable).

But I don’t agree with this comment:

The A level changes mean that we have got to re-train ourselves to teach linearity rather than modularity and it has got to be done over time and at different paces for different subjects. There is a danger that is quite confusing for parents, particularly, and pupils

Firstly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with re-training ourselves to teach in a different way, and to acquire new skills. Teachers do this all the time (and expect their students to do it daily), and in doing so we can ensure that whatever confusion there might be is sorted out in departmental meetings before it reaches the classroom and parents’ evenings.

Much of the debate seems framed with negative discussions about disruption, confusion, and inaccurate predicated grades. But not much is being said about the positives of linearity (Martin Robinson’s characteristically clear-sighted view of things is one of the exceptions). Linearity – which will see summative examinations at the end of the two-year course – will test students in a way that AS modules did not: the aim, for the previous Secretary of State, was to embed deep learning, rather than promote the ‘learn it and dump it’ approach that AS, at its worst, promoted. I have dealt with students who knew exactly what they needed to get in their UMS marks to secure an A grade, and they didn’t need to do much at all. AS levels promoted spoon feeding and a culture of dependancy (for both school and student).

And a lot of schools were happy with this: they liked the certainty that the AS level gave them, and they loved all the top grades that A2 delivered on the back of them. Prescriptive teaching, teaching to the test, ‘gaming the system’, these happened in schools all the time, but the pressure to get those children the highest possible grades, so that they got into good universities (and league table rankings were improved upon) was immense. AS and A2 made that easier, and now they’re gone (or going) and schools are worried.

Should they be? I don’t think so. Firstly, I think good teachers will enjoy the new A level because it will gain them several weeks teaching time; secondly, it will allow them greater freedom to teach challenging material which will really stretch their students. Students will adapt, as they always do, and they will quickly understand the new ‘rhythms’ of the school day, and that new pace might encourage a new sense of purpose. Thirdly, plenty of teachers are happy teaching IB and Pre-U (alongside or instead of A level), and these qualifications are linear (albeit with coursework components). Schools cope, and many flourish, with linear qualifications.

If the new A level frees up time in the school calendar, and takes away the re-sit culture that has been so damaging to intellectual curiosity (and the pleasure of just learning stuff for its own sake) then I’m all for it. I suspect that the previous Secretary of State for Education knew he had to be in a hurry, and had to get things done before he was done for (and he was right). It is fashionable for schools to tell their students that they need to have more character, and grit; perhaps, as institutions, they need to embody such qualities themselves rather more. New A level is here. Let’s get on with it.


2 thoughts on “AS: you like it?

  1. You know there was nothing to stop a school from having students do everything at the end of their A2 year anyway, right? If ‘depth’ and ’embedding’ and all this lark was so important they could have been doing it all along.

    Still, like you I don’t think it will be a disaster. I just think it will bring back a bunch of problems we left behind in the early 2000s: students feeling like there’s too big a leap between Year 11 and Year 12; a limit in the number of subjects you can do; repetitive essay questions in exams which mean kids remember stock answers; students getting two years into their course before realising they’re doing badly; new teachers not having any way of testing the validity of their marking until students’ entire university careers are on the line. All the good ole’ stuff like that. And all in the alleged pursuit of a mythical ‘deeper learning’ that apparently happens if you teach linearly but which, if schools were all that bothered, could have been done over two years anyway.



    1. Yes, I knew that schools had that option: Radley College have offered AS and A2 examinations at the end of Year 13 for some time and they enjoy the extra teaching time they gained. But they’re not typical. I teach IB and AL. In my subject (English) there is no memorising of essays for the final IB exams: they simply can’t do it because of the nature of the papers, and from what I’ve seen of some this will be the case with the new AL. The reality is (was) for most schools that when they weighed up deeper learning against modular public exams that can be cashed in at a convenient time, then the latter usually wins, as pragmatism often does (especially when such pragmatic decisions affect league table rankings). And the problems we left behind with Curriculum 2000 (which was, I remember, loudly opposed by many in schools) were replaced by a corrosive re-sit culture that many teachers detest (although some school leaders like for reasons I’ve written about).


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