Article in summary

This article, published in 2012, has partly been superseded by events: January exams have gone, and A-level reform is proceeding apace. For the latest on the changes discussed below see Tour article on the new A-level and GCSE exams. However, we've left this article online because it gives useful background to the changes now happening.


Article in full


Government proposals threaten January retakes. Education minister Michael Gove says he is determined to overhaul A levels. He feels that they are not tough enough and that they do not prepare students properly for university, so he has asked Ofqual, the body which oversees qualifications, to carry out a review. On June 19th 2012 Ofqual announced a consultation, proposing changes to A level including:

  • Abolishing January exams and allowing students to resit exams only once
  • Ensuring involvement of universities in the design of A levels
  • Considering whether AS levels should continue, and in what form



The AS / A2 system was introduced in 2002 as a major overhaul of A levels, making modular assessment the norm for all syllabuses. A-level pass rates jumped from around 70% to over 90%, and have continued to climb ever since. The proportion of top grades has increased too. Commentators and successive governments alike have seen this improvement as a problem, signifying a drop in standards rather than an improvement in absolute performance.

Mr Gove is only the latest in a series of Education ministers to promise reviews and reform to protect the 'Gold Standard' of A levels. Earlier reforms brought in measures such as reducing the number of modules in an A level, stricter control of syllabus content and exam difficulty, and introducing the A* top grade.

Is there a real problem still to address and are the Ofqual proposals an effective and fair way to proceed?

The proposal to abolish January exams and limit retakes

The proposal to abolish January exams and to limit unit resits has been mooted several times before. It is based on three premises. The first is that it is easier for students to do well with exams every half year rather than in the summer only. A second is that exams in January and June are awkward for schools to run, and a third presumes that retaking exams is somehow unfair.

Is it easier for students? Well, students often improve their grades as a result, but that's only a problem if there's no way to differentiate between students for entrance to competitive futures such as university, or if the students' preparation for those futures is undermined by this schedule of exams. Given that almost all university courses are modular and examined as such, the current half-year exams are arguably a better preparation than a summer-only system. If unit exams are agreed to be too easy, then make the questions tougher. The idea that learning in discrete units robs students of an overview implies that the existing requirement for 'synoptic' content (ie questions which require knowledge of wide areas of syllabus) isn't working properly, not that there should only be an exam at the very end of the course.

Arguing that life would be easier for school administrators if they didn't have to organise January exams sounds like the tail wagging the dog. If the most effective way to run A levels includes half-yearly exams it is surely up to schools, which want the best for their pupils, to make the necessary arrangements.

Finally there is the fairness question. Is it somehow 'wrong' that students should achieve a good result after several goes at the exam? If you believe this, some uncomfortable consequences flow for the young people concerned: you are arguing for what is essentially a 'one strike and you're out' approach. As Mario Di Clemente, CIFE Chairman, comments:

Whilst I share the government’s desire to drive educational standards upwards - and who wouldn’t? – it concerns me that the opportunity which many pupils have enjoyed over many years, and indeed been immensely grateful for, to retake examination units, seems now to be under threat under the new proposals. There is nothing wrong with second chances, particularly when a whole host of valid educational and personal reasons make examination unit resits not only desirable but fair, appropriate and potentially life-changing.

If on the other hand this proposal is simply another way to make the exam harder then there are fairer ways to achieve that aim.

The proposal for universities to oversee A-levels

Involving universities in the content and examination process of A levels is really a shot across the bows of the exam boards which currently run A level. There has been a steady muttering that, because exam boards compete with each other to 'sign up' schools, there's an inevitable tendency for them to make their offerings as student-friendly (= easy) as possible. There may be some truth in this, although exam boards already have their work closely monitored by Ofqual itself.

Involving universities (in the form of the' Russell Group' - deemed to be the most rigorous of the lot) in content and marking may help, though the adage of 'too many cooks spoiling the broth' comes to mind. Ironically perhaps, while top universities have been grumbling about poorly prepared entrants, they have greeted this proposal very cautiously, pleading lack of resources to undertake the necessary work. They may well remember past initiatives in which much work has been done, only for proposals to be shelved as the government spotlight turned elsewhere.

The proposal to review AS levels

Reviewing AS will be a worthwhile but tricky exercise. The concept of AS is laudable: it was designed to provide a half-way stage for the first year of A levels, introducing skills and content which would be taken to the full level of difficulty in the second year. Students could also take a stand-alone AS to broaden the notoriously narrow sixth-form curriculum. The central difficulty is that results achieved at AS count for a full half of the final A-level result, despite the content of the syllabus and the exam being easier. This has complicated the resit issue too: savvy students retake AS levels in January to get the maximum possible marks in case they do less well on the tougher A2 part of the A-level exam.

In conclusion

So, should we welcome the Ofqual proposals? Yes and no. If there are real problems for universities and employers in using A-level results as a reliable indicator of competent candidates, or if A level covers insufficient ground. those issues must be addressed head-on.

Proposals which are fair to sixth-formers and which address anomalies must be welcomed, but finding back-door ways to increase the failure rate, such as abolishing retakes, is surely wrong.