Anxieties about change.
I am in a genuine conundrum that I cannot quite resolve with my usual pondering and mulling over of things.
Since the A-level reforms of 2015, we developed a model that looks similar to what we had previously delivered. In Year 12, students sit AS exams in the May / June series even though they no longer count for anything. This seemed right at the time as we have a mixed offer of AS levels who were all at different points of curriculum change. It meant that all students could continue to have a similar year plan despite studying a combination of linear and non-linear subjects. Our current delivery model gives us about 30 weeks of delivery before the start of the exam season. As a teacher, I have often felt this is far from satisfactory, you just start getting somewhere with your Y12 class and it is time to stop for study leave.
However, in a linear model you do not have to sit the exams then, there is the opportunity of gaining back the lost 6 weeks and teaching straight through. Well, that’s the solution isn’t it? It is certainly what many school sixth forms are planning to do or have implemented from the beginning. As we approach the tipping point where most courses will have made it to the linear specifications, we approach the possibility of a paradigm shift in what can be provided.
If we abandon the AS external exam and replace it with a Y12 exam in the final half term, we will give ourselves more teaching and contact time than we know what to do with? We could slow the pace and change the pedagogy, spend more time wallowing in the depths of the subject rather than merely dipping our toes in.
However, why does this make me anxious? This is exactly the type of challenge which would normally get me excitable. Imagine the endless possibilities for doing more in a different way. More time for IAG, visits, trips, residentials, literacy … the potential is endless.
Why do I feel as though we are throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Here are some of my anxieties.
We would be abandoning any external yardstick on student performance. The problem with internal exams and new specifications is that we have yet to learn what the ‘feel’ of these new specifications is. It will take a few rounds of standardisation and exam feedback for me to be totally confident in the use of the specification and mark schemes. Over time, we build up a clearer view of the boards emphasis and pet peccadilloes.
I guess one could argue this is a staff development issue and one that ought not hold back any chance of change and I think I agree but I also want to be confident that I know what I am sending students into. We are all working from a couple of specimen papers and an unknown grading threshold? I have been to the exam board meetings and taken part in their standardisation training but it is not the same until you can offer your own student papers into the marking machine.
The problem of UCAS.
There has been much discussion amongst our HE colleagues about using a broader set of metrics to measure student potential when applying to university. I guess for some, they will be advantaged by the use of their GCSEs but for many of the students who I teach, those who go on to get ALPS plus one or two grades, their GCSEs are a poor way of judging their abilities. At least an external exam in Year 12 provides objective proof of their journey. Again, am I just stuck in an old mind-set? The universities will have to develop different methods for sorting and sifting candidates. Perhaps we will see more interviews and testing beforehand? I guess we could offer a predicted grade based on their internal Y12 exam but this does not address my worries about objectivity. At least our current predicted grades us external AS grades as the yardstick and although young people often do significantly better it does seem a useful heuristic.
The focus of the exam series has really helped some students capitalise on their Year 12 learning. It has is always lovely to watch a student use the exams as a means of focusing their commitment to the course and improving their grades. On the other hand, we could also argue that some students are not yet ready and feel demotivated by the Y12 external exam series. Other observers also argue that this cohort of students have been tested too much, at every stage of their development and to what effect. Whilst I have some sympathy for this analysis, I am also mindful of my very specific goal of preparing them for my own exam and part of that preparation must involve some testing that feels real and not mickey mouse.
The prospect of the external exam in Year 12 can be used to galvanise that group feeling in the classroom of us against the examiners. The split between teacher as final arbiter and teacher as support can be useful at times. However, perhaps this is a ridiculous anxiety as ultimately we ‘judge’ the students in many different ways and they are used to us wearing our different hats.
The 3 or 4 conundrum.
Curriculum 2000 was all about breadth and the move towards four AS subjects was a nod towards that debate. In my own experience, four AS subjects allows a student to grow into them and eventually discard one as time goes on. In a truly linear model, why would you bother with a fourth subject when universities only make offers on three? However, who knows what A-levels you will enjoy from the vantage point of Year 11 options evening, so perhaps four subjects gives you some options later on. Furthermore, the dropping of the fourth AS subject will involve a contraction of the subjects on offer. We are already a discrete provision but will this be the death knell of the breadth of offer in small sixth forms as they lose a quarter of their AS exam entries.
So where does this leave me? Are my anxieties real or am I stuck in an out-dated mind set and model? Should I mourn my lost certainties or embrace the potential of new possibilities? Whatever the answer, the decision will not really be mine but my own cognitive dissonance interests me. After mulling over the pros and cons, I still feel as ambivalent as when I started? I guess I need to do some more research and see what others are doing, but clearly change feels difficult more difficult than usual and it is when we get stuck that tells us the most about ourselves.