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No January A level and other changes

Article in summary

On November 9th 2012 OFQUAL announced that, after the January 2013 AS/A2 exam session, AS and A2 exams will only be available in the summer. This article describes the background to this announcement, the implications for students and teachers of no January A level and other changes, and reviews changes to A levels which are still under consideration.

July 2014: We've added updates in red. For a full and up-to-date description of what's happening read our article 'The new A-level and GCSE exams'.

Article in full

Background:

Education minister Michael Gove feels that A levels are not tough enough and that they do not prepare students properly for university. In early summer of 2012 he asked Ofqual, the body which oversees qualifications, to carry out a review of proposals which included:

  • 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

This November Ofqual published the results of that review, Impact Assessment of A-level reforms. The only concrete result at present is the decision to restrict AS and A2 exams to the summer, but in the accompanying announcement. Ofqual warn that further changes are likely.

Problems for students

As we argued in an earlier article, the ability to resit during the year benefits many students and does not in itself lead to 'grade inflation'. There are other fairer ways to improve the information available to universities than simply to cut January examinations.

January exams are currently used for a number of purposes which will become less appropriate or convenient when those exams are no longer available.

A-level retakers

Students who need to improve A level grades will no longer be able to get their resits finished by the end of January. That was a popular option - less costly in terms of time and money, with nine months 'free' to work /travel etc before university. It is possible but much less attractive to take time out over the winter, restart work in early spring and resit in June.

One-year A-level students

Students compress an A level into one year for a variety of reasons: subject change after lower sixth, combining resits with a new subject, topping up an overseas qualification etc. A common pattern for one-year courses was to get through the AS by January, take the exams and then use the final six months to focus on A2. In the summer students took A2 and any AS units which needed improving. Now they may only take all exam units in the summer, a significant extra challenge in what is already a very tough course.

Lower sixth try-out

It is not uncommon for schools to put lower-sixth students in for an AS paper in the January of their lower sixth, primarily to gain exam experience but also to generate a sense of urgency. This will no longer be possible - it was always a somewhat questionable practice in terms of broader educational objectives

Upper-sixth AS resits

This is the main focus of criticism of the January exam sessions. A considerable proportion of second year sixth-formers use the January session to resit AS exams, and not only to improve a poor result: more able students often resit to bump up a good AS paper grade to an excellent one. Such students must now wait until the summer, and retake AS units alongside A2. Whether or not to do so will be a tough decision: will work on AS resits pull down performance on A2 exams a fortnight later?

Possible benefits for students and teachers

To weigh against the clear loss of opportunity for students to spread their exam taking over three or even four sessions, and the loss of resit opportunities during and after a two-year A-level course, there will be compensations.

Fewer exam sessions

All exam sessions are stressful but January exams disrupt learning too. During the run-up to exams students focus on revision and, if their teachers do too, that blows a hole in the middle of the academic year. If the academic year is, say 30 weeks long (and from year start to summer AS exams it is usually shorter than that), 3 weeks in January is a serious loss. If only some of a class are taking January exams, teachers face the difficult choice: revise in class or crack on with new work? Exam-taking students often then get hit with a pile of catching up to do. For schools, shoe-horning January exams into a busy teaching timetable is often a major administrative headache that they will be glad to see the end of.

More focus in lower sixth

Anecdotally, students work less hard in lower sixth if they know they can retake AS exams in January of the second year. That may be true for some, but improved grades in January AS resits usually owe more to a student's greater academic maturity that to a sudden decision to work hard.

What about other exams?

GCSE

Changes to GCSE were announced at the end of 2011. Ofqual provides a summary of the details and of transition arrangements. June 2013 will be the last opportunity for students to sit module-based GCSE syllabuses. From then on all GCSE exams will be linear - based around internal assessment and exams taken in the summer.

GCSE modules will be available for the last time in January 2013. After that, students wanting to resit any GCSE subject except English and Maths can do so only by taking the whole exam again the next summer. In English and Maths only there will be a GCSE resit exam in November.

International A levels

The abolition of January exams applies specifically to centres in England. Cambridge International A levels won't be affected. They can still be taken in November and June. Edexcel, the other main provider of A levels to overseas centres, has not announced whether they will still provide any January A-level exams.

What other changes are being considered?

There are still quite a few changes in the pipeline, but no firm dates for decisions.

More Changes to resit rules

While the abolition of January exams may have gone a long way towards meeting criticism that resitting is too easy, there are still several other tough options being considered. One is to allow students to resit a module once only, a second is to require students to resit all modules of an exam, not just the one they did least well in. A final option is to remove the current 'best mark counts' rule so that a student has to take the result of the last retake of a module, even if it is worse than the result he or she got in a previous sitting.

All of this will make life yet harder for the student who needs to retake.

Update: the new A levels (first exam 2017) will be linear - all papers must be sat at once so no possibility just to resit individual papers.

Involvement of universities

The original idea of requiring up to 20 top universities to endorse any A-level syllabus before it could be used has been attacked by the universities themselves, who point out that they do not have the resources to do this properly. However, some greater university involvement is likely, if only because Mr Gove has made such a point of it.

Update: universities are providing input to the new exams after all

Changes to AS level

Ofqual have acknowledged that there is strong support for AS, as an exam at the end of lower sixth on the way to A level, and as a stand-alone qualification. Whether AS should still count for 50% of a full A level is still under discussion - some argue that it should count for less because it is easier than A2 .

Update: AS will continue but marks gained will not count at all towards A-level grade

Changes to A-level syllabuses

There is a general move to reform syllabuses yet again, to increase synoptic assessment, allowing students "to integrate and apply their skills, knowledge and understanding with breadth and depth". It is likely that there will be an increase in the amount of external assessment in syllabuses where over 40% of marks currently come from internally assessed work.

Update: reform is well under way with all specifications facing review, reductions in coursework, changes to exam structures etc.

Timescale for change

The government is pressing for new syllabuses to be in place ready for teaching in 2014. The exam boards aren't happy with this because some basic parameters such as the role of AS levels are still to be decided, and getting an effective new syllabus into schools takes a lot of consultation and trialling . Schools also have much recent experience of change introduced with too many rough edges still on show.

Update: teaching new specifications for a number of key A levels starts in 2015 (so first exams in 2017). The other A levels follow in 2016 /2017.

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