In this article, John Southworth, Principal of MPW London, describes why A levels offer the best sixth form programme for university-bound students, combining flexibility and specialisation while developing a strong skills base for degree-level study. The new ‘linear’ A level exams mark a return to rigour and enable teachers to look beyond the treadmill of exams which was a drawback of the old modular A levels.
A version of this article has appeared in Independent School Parent magazine

Sixth formers wishing to pursue a traditional “academic” education in the two years before university can choose between a curriculum of  A levels, IB or Pre-U – sometimes in combination. In reality, of course, their choice may be reduced dramatically by the choices available at their school or college, but students do have the opportunity of moving institution after GCSE, and the curriculum on offer is often and quite rightly a crucial factor in choosing a new college.

How do students make one of the biggest decisions of their lives, namely the selection the curriculum pathway that is going to suit them best as individual learners, enhance their chances of onward progression in their chosen field or simply keep their options open in the most effective way?

At my own college, along with most other CIFE colleges, we still prefer the Gold Standard of A levels, particularly following the recent reforms, which I will summarise later. We believe that A levels offer the best sixth form programme.

The defining quality of A level is the unique way in which it combines choice and specialisation. We tend to take this for granted, and it is only when we compare it with another curriculum that we are reminded of its benefits. At my own college we have a choice of over 40 subjects, yielding in theory nearly 5,000 three-subject combinations and over 100,000 four-subject combinations. There are no restrictions on the combination chosen other than that it should feature sufficient ‘facilitating’ subjects (“strong” A levels) so as not to close off entry to the most elite universities to which the student might conceivably and realistically apply.

Of course, no student actually works through the possible combinations before choosing, and indeed the process of selection is really very quick and usually hinges on perhaps just a choice between three or four subjects for the final spot. But the fact remains that every year someone picks a combination that we have never had before. The students in question are completely unaware of this. They can see that they are doing subjects that plenty of other people are doing and they are in classes that are more or less full. But the fact remains that they have opted for a programme that is a unique fit for their particular skills and hopes. A levels offer the best sixth form programme because none of the alternative curricula offer such a combination of flexibility and potential bespokeness.

With this choice and flexibility, of course, comes specialisation. A level not only provides students with skills-based grounding in ‘facilitating’ subjects such as Mathematics, English, French or Chemistry, but it also allows students to “get stuck into” the subjects that they might want to pursue at university or in their future careers. This opportunity to do something that genuinely interests them as a specialism can be a crucial motivating factor within the overall sixth-form experience.

So long as the crucial skills-based subjects are in there too, combining them with non-traditional subjects such as Psychology, Philosophy, Politics, Geology, Law or Art History (to mention just a few) can allow students to find out more about themselves, what interests them and what doesn’t, and reduces the risks of choosing those subjects at degree level. Meanwhile, for those who know exactly what they want to do at university and want to start their training early, A level is unrivalled. As the Oxford University website puts it when comparing A level to IB, “students who wish to specialise in a particular science at Oxford may find that the concentration of three A levels prepares them better for an intense subject-specific degree”.

Recently, A levels have undergone significant and welcome reforms that re-establish some of the rigour that many felt had been lost to IB and Pre-U. The new ‘linear’ A levels have returned to end of course exams and, with that, the practice of being able to cherry pick module exams to retake during the course of a two-year programme of study has been abolished. There has been a general reduction of coursework but more emphasis on practical skills in the sciences. Students will now sit all their grade-determining papers at the end of the course in a return to the format with which their parents will have been familiar prior to the advent of Curriculum 2000 and its modular AS/A2 form of assessment.

For those taking A levels over two years there is still the option of taking AS levels at the end of their first year of study, but the AS qualifications is standalone, ie not contributing to the overall A level result, and is now worth only 40% as opposed to 50% of the UCAS points: any material that is common to the A level syllabus is not assessed to the same standard as A level. Many schools and colleges, including CIFE colleges, now by-pass AS exams in order to use the first sixth-form year to broaden and enrich students’ extracurricular opportunities.

Whilst the abolition of grade-determining exams at AS answers the clamour to “give sixth formers back their life” (at least in Year 12), the removal of targets and formal assessments in the first year can have hidden drawbacks that have to be taken seriously. GCSEs take on added importance as the most up-to-date evidence of attainment that students are able show on their UCAS forms, and students for whom poor AS results were a wake-up call to knuckle down to study can sleepwalk into year 13 without realising just how much they are going to underachieve.

However, neither of these potential concerns is unique to the new A levels: they apply equally to Pre-U or IB based programmes. As specialist sixth-form colleges we are used to seeing students who need to rethink the sixth-form after an unhappy time in lower sixth, and we are continuing to do so under the new A level curriculum. But whether such students are able to complete in just one further year or have to start again with two, we always recommend an A level route even if they have come from IB or Pre-U. It is really only the A level route that gives us the flexibility we need to help turn an unpromising start into a happy ending.

We should never forget that A level is a particularly well-established qualification that has been engineered and modified by the best educational brains for several generations. It is built in Britain, the world’s pre-eminent and pioneering centre for educational excellence. It has been exported all over the world and very successfully so. In the UK, it is still, arguably, the sixth-form curriculum that is best understood by university admissions tutors. It is certainly the one that is still best understood by employers. It is beautifully simple in its approach and does not try to weave an educational philosophy into its fabric.

Few A level advocates would argue against the benefits to be had from extended essay writing, an understanding of the theory of knowledge or exposure to creativity, activity and service. But we would argue that these benefits can be delivered best through additional enrichment via such devices as the EPQ or community service while the academic offer is kept pure and simple.

To pursue the engineering analogy just a little further, the old modular AS/A2 system made A levels a little too easy to ‘drive’ and led to some lazy habits that ill-suited some students as they graduated to the more demanding tracks and faster vehicles of degree-level. Under the new A level curriculum we combine the best of modern British syllabus design with a return to some of the best features of our traditional assessment system. Even more than before, A levels offer the best sixth form programme.