Linear A-levels: Hobson’s choice or Morton’s Fork

Well as the mist settles, the pathway seems clearer with linear A-levels.  In my mind, it seems obvious that we will all have to eventually offer linear courses without the AS qualification at the end of Year 12, once all the courses have reformed to the linear model.

Despite all the kerfuffle made about co-teachability and the propaganda meetings from exam boards to calm the nerves of anxious and angry teachers, it seems an au fait accompli.


The DFE announced that the reform would not dictate a particular model for AS and A-Level programmes, but I think they do.  We have a classic example of a Hobson’s Choice or a Morton’s Fork.


Model 1. The 4 to 3 model.

Students take AS qualifications in all four subjects at the end of the first year and then choose which three to continue to A-Level.  This looks like what most of us have at the moment.  It feels comfortable, like an old pair of slippers.  Whilst it may maintain curriculum breadth and help with enrolment there are several flaws in its design.

Firstly, the decision of which three to take forward may become more complicated.  As AS grades are decoupled, it could be that a grade at AS is not a good indicator of performance over a two-year linear model.  Secondly, if other centres are only offering 3 subjects in a linear model, does that mean they can resource them with additional contact time which will clearly advantage and improve the learning.  If we sit tight with the 4 to 3 model are we doing more for less?  Will other centres make more progress if they can resource each subject with more contact hours per week?  Fourthly, the financial cost, my god the cost of continuing to enter students for four AS exams that no longer count.  Is this attractive in a time of austerity?  Someone is making a fortune out of all these curriculum changes and it certainly is not me.

A recent survey by UCAS suggested that most schools are maintaining this model until all subjects have been reformed so that all subjects would be taught similarly, with external assessment at the end of Year 12.  However, most were looking to change delivery models after the final wave of reforms in 2017.

Model 2. The linear way.

Students enrol on three A-Levels and do not take AS in any subjects; they continue with all three subjects in the second year.

I think there are still problems with linear A-levels.  It will be difficult to track progress without external assessment until we become comfortable with the specifications.  We are putting a lot of stress on the final few months of the course; oh the joys of high-risk testing.

However, there may be a glimmer of hope.  With a bit of planning and structure we could regain Year 12 as a year of personal growth and experimentation.  Key stage 5 could be seen from a more developmental and holistic perspective.  There is a chance to provide a wider range of opportunities that will create more well-rounded young people.  But, and there is always one.  The risk is that we will still need to deliver the grades in Year 13.  Without the support of modules and the rigour of external assessment – can we be certain that we can deliver?

Model 3. The pick and mix model.

On paper, this looks enticing and sounds like it could be the fudge that wins the day.  However, there are several howlers lurking behind it’s appearance of personalisation.  A student who is on both a linear and AS course will need to take sometime for study leave around the AS exams.  This will reduce any potential benefit to the linear subjects who will lose the mix and match students for a few weeks in the Summer term.  How will subjects who only have internal exams compete with those who have entered students for external AS assessment.  I fear it may mean a plague on both your houses.

The final nail in the coffin.

The universities are keeping up the pretence with suitable ambiguous statements of intent surrounding these curriculum change but I think the writing is on the wall for our current models of delivery.

We know that the AS exams will no longer count towards final A2 grade.  The nail in the coffin really comes from the attitude of the universities who have said they will use a broader range of criteria to make offers. Ah … they are going to use GCSEs.  Therefore, unless your students are going to outperform their target grade on the standalone AS qualification we may be doing them a dis-service as they may not get as good an offer as someone who has similar GCSE grades but who has not under performed on a decoupled AS qualification.  (I guess this could work the other way around as well, with those who hold low GCSE scores using the decoupled AS grade to prove they are more able.)


It strikes me that there reforms are laden with the ideas of freedom to choose but when you look a bit closer the cupboard is rather bare.  We have heard much of these ‘freedoms’ in the marketised world of Academies and Free Schools.  But the reality rarely matches the rhetoric.  By hook or by crook, Gove has got his way and linear is here to stay.



OED. Hobson’s Choice.

A Hobson’s choice is a free choice in which only one option is actually offered. As a person may refuse to take that option, the choice is therefore really decided between taking the option or not. In other words, one may “take it or leave it”.

OED. Morton’s Fork. Noun.

A dilemma, especially one in which both choices are equally undesirable.