The ridiculous restructuring of A Levels

Michael Gove has done it again. Shaking up the schools system, national curriculum and GCSEs is not enough. Now it’s the turn of A Levels to be given the Gove treatment.

It would be funny if it was a satire. Yesterday, the government announced its planned overhaul of A Levels with the intention that it would facilitate the development of ‘deep understanding’ and reduce focus on examinations. What this means in practice is the division of AS Levels and A Levels into separate qualifications. In any subject, students can either choose to do an AS Level (worth half an A Level), or they can do a full A Level, both of which will be assessed by examination at the end of a two-year period. This, argues Gove, will improve the qualification’s suitability for university study and the world of work.

The strange thing is that very few seem to agree. Cambridge, for example, has released a statement saying the move will ‘jeopardise over a decade’s progress towards fairer access’. The university uses AS Level results as a predictor of A Level and ultimately degree performance – with good reason. Without this information, it will be harder to gauge students’ abilities at the point of application. Universities UK has warned that the timetable is too ambitious, that it will create further uncertainty for students, that it will cause difficulties during the admissions process and stated that their view is that A Levels are broadly fit for purpose. The 1994 Group isn’t happy with the plans – warning of a lack of consultation and information, as well as emphasising that A Levels aren’t just for universities. The Million+ think tank, independent school headteachers and teachers’ unions have also expressed their opposition. I could go on. And on.

Gove has said that he has listened to universities and employers who have said they want a system of reduced focus on exams – but this doesn’t seem to be what they had in mind. Perhaps because all it does is focus intensely on one particular set of high-stakes exams. How this improves learning is unclear – if anything it will result in even more teaching to the test – because as the test’s importance increases, the necessity of performing well specifically within those parameters increases too. Unfortunately, this opposition from ‘Education Establishment’ and CBI is clearly wrong:



But let’s leave aside the relentless opposition from everywhere except Michael Gove’s office and a few fans and take this back to basics. Imagine you’re a 16 year old who has just got their GCSE results and is considering which A Levels to take. Previously you’d choose four or five AS Levels, do them for a year, see how you do and then decide one or two to drop and focus on three A Levels to prepare you for university. But let’s switch to the new system. Now, AS Levels and A Levels are distinct qualifications – so rather than simply choosing four subjects and later deciding which one to drop, students will have to choose the three subjects they want to get a full A Level in, and one other subject they only want an AS Level in. Only after two years will they be assessed, by which point it’ll be time to leave school and either get a job or go to university. But what happens if you decide you don’t like a subject you’re doing an A Level in? Well, tough luck. You either carry on, in which case you’ll probably end up with a poor A Level in a subject you don’t like, or you pull out and have nothing to show for a year of study. If you decide you like a subject you’ve started at AS Level, and decide you’d like a full A Level, tough. Your AS Level counts for nothing against an A Level – so you’ll have to start all over again and do the same exams only this time under the ‘A Level’ banner. Can Gove really not see just how stupid this is?