Reformed A-levels: more rigorous or more rigamarole?

Well the dust has settled on the first year of the reformed A-levels and whilst it was not the omni-shambles we had feared thanks to the concept of comparable outcomes, I think we are still left with questions about the pedagogical benefits of these changes.   To judge whether these reforms are worthwhile, we must go back to the rationale for these changes.

David Laws explained in a Westminster debate why the Government were making the changes.

We want to give students a better experience of post-16 study, ensuring they are studying for rigorous qualifications that will provide them with the right skills and knowledge to allow them to progress. Students currently start A-levels in September and then they immediately start preparing for examinations in January. They and their teachers have spent too much time thinking about exams and re-sitting them, encouraging in some cases a “learn and forget” approach … In 2010, 74% of maths A-level students re-sat at least one paper.During the past few years, too many students in our schools system have spent too long preparing for and taking tests in years 10, 11, 12 and 13.

During the past decade, we have been in danger of creating an “exam factory” in our schools, particularly in the last four years of education, rather than creating places of deep learning where teachers and students are given the time and space to develop deep knowledge of subjects, rather than just preparing constantly for public examinations. That is one of the key reasons why the Government are making the changes that we are debating today.

The focus that there has been on exams in every one of those final four years of school education can lead to young people failing to deliver and develop that deep understanding of their subject, and to their failing to make connections between topics. Re-sits have also led to too much teaching time being sacrificed for assessment preparation.

I think the jury is still out on whether these reforms have created a better post-16 educational landscape.  I still have the following queries about the changes:

  1. Clumsy transition for the cohorts from 2015 – 2017.  These students have had the most disruption to their learning while we get to grips with the changes.  Many have had to study a package of both modular and linear A-levels.  This has meant they have had to juggle both modular exams alongside trying to cover all the detail of the reformed A-levels.  This has not necessarily been a good experience for this cohort.
  2. End of ‘exam factories’? Schools will still have end of year exams and tests to help assess progress.  Teachers are still preparing students for assessment throughout the courses.  Getting rid of AS has not magically given back six weeks of learning.  The school treadmill carries on.  Students are still able to resit the following year (albeit, they will need to resit all three units).
  3. More depth? In my opinion, the content of new specifications is not significantly smaller than in the old modular system.  In fact, the increased focus on synoptic links has arguably made them much more challenging in places.   I am not against challenging content per se but there is very little additional teaching time.  For example, in the AQA A-level Sociology specification only one topic was removed (suicide) and replaced with another. In AQA A-level Psychology, we are still racing through a topic every 5 weeks with little time to consolidate or review. This makes me worry, it is not good pedagogy to be so content driven without time for reflection, review and practice.
  4. More teaching time? Most A-levels are resourced between 4 -5 hours per week.  The gained time from the abolition of AS levels is a bit of a myth as we still have to prepare students for end of year mock assessments and make time for feedback on those assessments.  By the time you add in the mock exams, work experience, INSET and review days you are not much better off.  There has been no increase in funding to sustain more contact time in the classroom.
  5. Lack of breadth.  Most centres have decided to only offer three linear A-levels as it makes little sense to study a fourth subject as the qualification will no longer count towards a university offer.  In the old model, most would have started on 4 or 5 AS levels and specialised in Year 13.  Have we lost both breadth and depth?  What impact does this have on minority subjects and smaller sixth forms.
  6. Student anxieties. Our uncertainty about the marking and standards has bound to have influenced how the students feel about their subjects. In the past, we had much clearer guidance and examples to offer but it has felt a bit blind for us all.

I guess it is only the first year of these reformed A-levels and I still have much to reflect on in terms of how to adapt my pedagogy.  However, as a classroom teacher I am not yet convinced that these changes are producing ‘better’ learning or students who are more ready for university.  They are definitely more difficult as we have seen the grade boundaries soften this year to ensure comparable outcomes.  It is also ironic that one of the ambitions of a linear course was to create more ‘university-ready’ students who will progress onto the modular world of Higher Education.

We can and we will get better at teaching linear courses; I guess I am wondering who they are better for.  More rigorous or just more rigamarole?