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Susan Young - Education Otherwise

Susan Young gives her weekly round-up of the issues and events in the world of school leadership and management. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of NAHT.


What stakeholders said about A level reform: a reality check?

A consultation which concludes that most people are basically happy with something usually has journalists yawning over their coffee before, perhaps, writing a paragraph about it. Unless, that is, the consultation was motivated by the desire to make fast and fundamental changes, and the result undermines the desired course of action.

So it appears to be with A Level reform. You'll have heard that the January exams are being scrapped along with most resit opportunities, but possibly not have waded through the five background documents that are the result of Ofqual's summer consultation on the matter.

A quick and dirty summing up (and I'll come back with a bit more detail further on) is that most stakeholders are fairly happy with A Levels as they are, though would like some minor tweaks; are also happy with the AS level to remain as the initial part of the course; don't think it's feasible for universities to take on the lion's share of specifying what's examined; believe that employers' needs should be taken into account: and, finally, think the proposed time-frame is far too short.

It would be overdramatic to describe it as a slap in the face with a wet fish for the Secretary of State for education, but even the most enthusiastic spin-doctor would be hard-pressed to say it was the result he was looking for when he expressed his concerns about the exam to Ofqual in March. In Mr Gove's letter to Glenys Stacey, he said that in his view the "single most important purpose" of the exam was to prepare for university study, and said he wanted universities to have "far greater involvement," and a "real and committed" ownership in developing qualifications, particularly those from the Russell Group. He was also concerned about the exam's modular structure, including the AS/A2 split, and wanted "rapid progress"... with the teaching of new A Levels from September 2014. Oh, and underpinning this was his "increasing concern" that current A levels "fall short of commanding the level of confidence we would want to see.".

So, to the consultation documents. The analysis is of responses from over a thousand people, mostly online responses but also a significant number from several events involving "stakeholder groups".

"There was broad consensus from stakeholders that A levels were largely fit for purpose," says the paper. "Many participating stakeholders, however, welcomed the reform of one or more aspects of A level assessment that were considered to have had a negative impact on teaching, learning and student development, most commonly: modular design, January assessments and/or multiple opportunities for resits. The majority of stakeholders participating in the consultation welcomed the increased role of universities and higher education institutions (HEIs) in the development of A levels."

But the picture wasn't all rosy. "There were high levels of concern about the implementation of reform and the proposed regulatory approach. One recurring issue... was that universities and HEIs were not included in any current or proposed infrastructure or process identified for the design and development of A levels. Some stakeholder groups raised an associated issue about government withdrawing from accountability for A levels as national qualifications, questioning how the work required for the reforms would be prioritised and funded in universities and HEIs if there was no intervention from, for example, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

"There were commonly held fears that, without a co-ordinating group/body for an A level subject, a hierarchical system of A levels would arise based on which universities endorsed a particular subject and/or specification within a subject. Stakeholders felt strongly that this development would reduce equality of access for students to the full range of universities, and the students most severely affected would be those without access to informed advice about which A levels/specifications are required for their preferred courses."

Though there was "broad agreement" with the primary purpose of A Levels, "many stakeholders expressed specific concerns". These included that employment/the development of wider skills were not given sufficient recognition, and that it was "very important" that "employers should be involved somewhere in the examination design process, so that employment as a destination (including after graduation) was not forgotten."

Accountability was also a concern for "the majority of stakeholder groups." "Although school and college participants recognised that, in practice A level results were used in this way, most stakeholder groups thought that there was a tension between the primary purpose and the inclusion of school accountability measures: end result (performance) against preparation for HE." One higher education group told the consultation: "This is a crude measure which takes no account of the quality of teaching or student profile. As with similar measures, this proposal continues to promote perverse incentives and encourages teachers to teach to the exam rather than improve understanding and the quality of teaching and learning."

"All stakeholder groups" strongly supported the AS and its relationship with A2. The impact assessment document says: "There were concerns that removing AS levels would have a negative impact on student retention and could affect the ability of those learners who drop out after the first year of a two-year A Level to progress into employment."

There were also "serious concerns" about implementation. Universities and their representing groups had an "overall sense" that it "would not be advisable or operationally feasible for the HE sector to take on the ‘ownership of the exams’, particularly in terms of the consultation’s current proposal that it should formally endorse all A levels. Several HEI representative groups saw it as important that learned societies should be engaged in A level development on an equal footing with HEIs, and that schools and colleges and, where appropriate, employers should have a role in the process."

The stakeholder groups thought the proposed timescale for the reform of A levels was "unrealistic" and might lead HE to decline to be associated with the design and development of the new qualifications. The impact document says: "Most of the stakeholders believed that the timescales proposed for the development of new A Levels could lead to problems in their implementation which would ultimately affect the impact of the reforms. Most believed that the revised specifications should be released at the same time for all subjects and this should be done in 2015 or 2016.".

Reading on, you get the feeling that those at the consultation events might have been desperate to introduce the bigger picture into the consultation. "Many participants expressed concern that the reform of A levels was happening in isolation, without a full understanding of change taking place in other parts of the education system. The raising of the school leaving age, the increase in university fees and the new funding mechanisms for Key Stage 5 (KS5), for example, might all affect A level participation. In the absence of any programme of study for KS5, participants felt that the regulatory approach must enshrine comparability of curricula to ensure equality of access for students from all schools and colleges."

So the ball is now in Ofqual's court, since Mr Gove's initial letter was clear that he "did not envisage the Department for Education having a role in the development of A level qualifications." Will the organisation be guided by the results of the consultation, or from the Education Secretary's clearly-stated desires?

It will be fascinating to see what happens next.


Susan Young is an education journalist.





Page published: 12/11/2012