A-level reforms - Issue of the Week - 25th January, 2013

On Tuesday, Ofqual, the exams regulator, published a letter from The Rt. Hon. Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, detailing his priorities for A-level reform.

They are threefold: Mr. Gove wants to replace the existing modular A-level system with a single exam; he wants to establish AS-levels as standalone qualifications; and he wants to institute an advisory committee, 'created' by the Russell Group, to advise on A-level content.

By way of introduction, we would like to briefly restate our support for the closure of the January assessment window—as announced by Ofqual in November—which gave students the opportunity to re-take exams. We also welcome the Secretary of State's decision to delay the implementation of A-level reforms until September 2015; although we must stress that to properly review and revise a large number of A-levels will take time, so the DfE must ensure the timescale is adequate. These reforms are too important to be rushed through.

Nonetheless, the 1994 Group are worried by the current lack of clarity on some issues. Firstly, much has been left unclear about the role and nature of the Advisory Group. Will it just look at "facilitating subjects" such as Maths and English, or will it look at all A-levels? If the former, it risks creating a two-tier system.

Secondly, how will the Advisory Group engage with the best academics from across the sector, from universities to learned societies? Elizabeth Truss MP, PPS for Education, gave some clarification in the Commons yesterday: "I have spoken to a number of universities, both in the Russell Group and outside, as well as the 1994 [G]roup and Universities UK, and I am absolutely clear that we need subject experts from across all the universities to be involved in the process, so that we get A-levels that reflect the broad consensus across universities." But, transparent processes will be needed to identify the best academics and the leading institutions to guide these reforms.

Thirdly, the current AS-level provides a useful indicator of progress, which is invaluable for university admissions. We worry that without these results universities will have to place more emphasis on A-level predicted grades—of which more than half are wrong—school references, or older GCSE grades. From our experience these are less reliable, and would unduly prejudice disadvantaged students who receive less help when applying to university.

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