A-level overhaul: Cap on resits and shift to summer-only exams
- 9 November 2012
- From the section Education & Family
England's exams watchdog Ofqual has announced a shift to summer-only exams and a cap on resits for A-level students in England.
They are the first of what are expected to be widespread changes to the exams taken by 18-year-olds.
The watchdog has published the results of a consultation on proposed changes.
It says there was support for fewer resits and exam seasons - but opposition to the idea of scrapping of AS-levels.
Most people thought the exams were "largely fit for purpose", it said.
Pupils are to be allowed just one resit per paper.
Teachers have criticised the plans, saying there is no evidence that A-levels need changing and that schools and pupils face "huge turbulence".
The government believes there are "serious problems" with the exams, that they do not prepare pupils properly for university and that the fact that they are taken "in chunks" over two years, with resits, has led to "grade inflation".
It favours the idea of exams being taken at the end of two years of study and wants more input from universities.
There were concerns that an emphasis on frequent exams meant students could not study a subject in enough depth.
Universities have said they broadly support the "thrust" of Friday's announcement, but do not want to "take ownership" of the qualifications.
A-levels are currently made up of AS-levels (taken in students' first year of study) and exams taken in the second year, known as A2s. Papers are taken in January and June.
Ofqual canvassed opinion on proposals, which included some to scrap AS-levels, bring in new A-level courses in 2014 in some "priority subjects", with other courses introduced later and for universities to be more involved with their design.
It describes its announcement as "the first phase of proposed wider A-level reforms".
The scrapping of January exams and the limit on resits come in from September 2013, but they will affect students who began their A-level studies this September. They will not have January exams in their second year as expected.
The body's chief regulator, Glenys Stacey, said: "Earlier this year we set out our proposals for A-level reform. The results show that respondents are very supportive of the proposals we outlined to remove the January assessments.
"The consultation followed on from Ofqual's research into perceptions of A-levels. This showed that the qualifications are considered to be largely fit-for-purpose but that there were some structural changes that could be made to improve them."
She said there was support for the idea of universities being involved with the design of A-levels - "but less support for universities endorsing each A-level".
Universities are already involved with the design of the exams, sitting on expert panels drawn up by exam boards.
Head teachers represented by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) back the ending of the January exams.
And they say they are pleased "to see strong consensus that in the main A-levels are fit for purpose" and support for keeping the AS-level.
"A-levels are a well known and well respected international brand and it would be foolish to damage confidence in them for no compelling reason," said ASCL leader Brian Lightman.
Chris Keates, the head of the NASUWT teachers' union, said Ofqual had shown no hard evidence that the wholesale change of A-levels was needed and that teachers and students would now face "huge turbulence and uncertainty".
Reducing resit opportunities would disadvantage pupils and the government seemed determined "to reduce the A-level to an elite university entrance exam" rather than a qualification for all young people, she added.
Andrew Hall, head of the AQA exam body, said: "The issue of timescales for the implementation of A-level reforms and the method of engagement with universities should be addressed as a matter of urgency.
"We agree that everyone should be entitled to resit an exam...but we have been concerned for some time that the culture of resits was distorting exam results."
The government has welcomed the changes, saying Ofqual's report shows that its reform plans are right.
A spokeswoman said: "Academics at our best universities have been concerned that there are real problems with A-levels.
"We are pleased that January exams and multiple resits will be scrapped, that people want less internal assessment and that universities have given such a clear signal that they want to be involved in designing A-levels.
"It is enormously encouraging that there is such support for a robust and relevant new system which will allow young people to demonstrate real knowledge and understanding of their subjects."
Universities UK (UUK), which represents university leaders, says it supports the "broad thrust" of the plans, but that universities do not want to "take ownership" of the qualifications and that the timetable for change is "too ambitious".
Its chief executive, Nicola Dandridge, said: "Universities have an important role to play in developing A-level curriculum and in ensuring that A-level content supports progression to higher education. University academics and staff are already extensively engaged in this way and have been working with the awarding organisations for many years.
But she added: "A-levels should remain broad enough to prepare students for the next stage of life, whether in higher education, employment or other forms of education."
Wales and Northern Ireland are conducting their own separate reviews into the future of exams for 14 to 18-year-olds so these changes will just affect students in England, potentially leading to different A-level exams being taken by pupils in different parts of the UK.