Why linear A-levels will work best

Jan 19, 2015

As a senior leader and English teacher, the removal of coursework meant an end to the relentless chasing of year 11s for those essays that were always “on my computer at home”, alongside a suspicion that some pupils were getting far more guidance than others. But there was sadness, too, that the part of the course in which pupils constructed and refined an extended essay and argument over a period of time had been removed.

In the end a more reliable and fair grading system seemed more important, something that terminally examined qualifications provided in a more rigorous way.

But beyond the demands of accountability, many schools still teach skills they value, even when they are no longer examined. Science staff at King Solomon still teach students to independently plan and complete experiments, and the English teachers continue to teach extended essay writing and redrafting.

It is vital that there is enough space in the curriculum to teach these skills even if we don’t yet have a method of accurately assessing them.

If we consider what an upper secondary curriculum should look like (separately from how we assess it), I would argue that students should learn a core of mandated content at a sophisticated level, as well as have space to explore subject areas of interest to them. Done well, this breadth of study will improve their understanding and enjoyment of the mandated material too.

This is why I oppose the proposed recoupling of A-levels and the reintegration of AS-levels at the end of year 12. Unlike at GCSE, where there is still enough time in a two-year course to teach beyond what is assessed, the current post-16 academic curriculum is overly assessment-driven because high stakes exams are so frequent. External exams in the summer term means that teaching of new content in many schools slows down in February to start the revision cycle. Year 12 therefore has less than a full school year to deliver new content, and often the only new material taught is that which is examined at the end of the year.

Of course there needs to be an accurate assessment model, but with exams taken across the two years, the assessment tail has been wagging the curriculum dog. The enormous pressures of taking exams that determine university offers (and school league table position) halfway through the course means that the focus necessarily moves from developing subject knowledge and enjoyment into learning content to pass the exams. It is interesting that Scotland is the only other country with such a short upper secondary cycle, and since Curriculum 2000, no other country in the world has adopted a similar upper secondary model.

There are benefits to second year only A-level exams. Delaying the point where curriculum options are narrowed is welcomed by those that feel 16 is too young to choose a life path, and the chance to drop a weaker subject allows for experimentation and broadening of academic interest.

The University of Cambridge has been particularly vocal in its defence of such an approach, arguing that AS results help universities to recruit the best students as the combination of GCSE and AS results can predict whether a student will receive a 2:1 with 70.1 per cent accuracy.

But what is left unsaid is that GCSE results alone on this measure are 69.5 per cent predictive.

The Cambridge admissions team has also said that decoupling would disproportionately harm the most disadvantaged students, presumably because the modular system requires less long-term retention of content. But it is precisely this viewpoint, born from a culture of low expectations, which curriculum and assessment reforms (as well as teacher training and development) must address.

Ultimately the cost of lost learning from two standalone qualifications is too high. A-levels must be decoupled so that the focus of the upper secondary classroom shifts away from assessment and back towards curriculum and learning.

This blog originally appeared in Schools Week


Natasha Porter

Deputy Head of Education, 2014-15 Read Full Bio

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