Oxford raises concerns over A-level exam reform

exams Mr Nicholson said there was limited evidence that there was any need for change

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Plans to overhaul A-levels and GCSEs could "wreak havoc" to the exams system in England, Oxford University's admissions tutor has said.

Mike Nicholson said universities and schools were worried about the limited evidence available on reforming exams.

He said plans to make AS-levels a stand-alone qualification would hinder attempts to increase the numbers of disadvantaged students doing degrees.

Ministers said single exams would end the "test treadmill" in sixth-forms.

Speaking at a Westminster Education Forum in central London, Mr Nicholson, who is director of undergraduate admissions and outreach at Oxford University, said changing A-levels was "another great example of a government's tendency to meddle in things they should probably just leave alone".

Start Quote

Returning A-levels to single exams will end the test treadmill in sixth-forms - something which many teachers complain about”

End Quote Department for Education

He said: "There is widespread concern, not restricted to the secondary-school sector, but also to higher education, about the limited evidence that there is need for any change and widespread concern that the impact of bringing in both GCSE and A-level changes at the same time is going to just wreck the English education system.

"Part of the problem is a total misunderstanding and confusion over activities and information that is in the public domain," he said.

Under the government's plans, teenagers will no longer take "modular" A-levels with exams throughout but "linear" A-levels with exams at the end of the two-year course.

AS-levels will be separated from A-levels to form a qualification in their own right.

Mr Nicholson said that there was an assumption that linearity was good, partly because some universities still operated a system of exams at the end of a three-year degree course. But he added that universities had "managed to cope with modularity".

He said students also applied for degree courses with different types of qualifications, including the International Baccalaureate, the Cambridge Pre-U and A-levels.


Mr Nicholson also raised concerns about the planned changes to the AS-level.

"The loss of AS-levels will have tragic consequences for widening participation and access to higher education.

"AS-levels are excellent because they give students a very clear indication of what they are capable of achieving.

"The real danger is students will plough on believing that they may not be capable of applying to a highly selective course, but equally believing that they are capable of applying to a highly selective and competitive course.

"Losing AS-levels will have a really significant result on the likelihood of students from a disadvantaged background progressing to higher education."

Russell group subjects


  • Maths and further maths
  • Physics
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • History
  • Geography
  • Modern and classical languages
  • English Literature

Source: Russell Group

Mr Nicholson also said there were misconceptions around the A-level subjects that Russell Group universities - which are considered among the best in the UK - required from prospective students.

In 2009 - following calls for universities to be clearer about their admissions procedures - the Russell Group published a list of subjects that tended to be required more often than others.

Mr Nicholson told Tuesday's forum:"We tried to respond and give advice. That however has been totally misinterpreted. It states very clearly in the document what the intention is.

"People choose to ignore that and say what it's basically saying is here are the 12 subjects that will guarantee you a place at a Russell Group university.

"That's total nonsense. If you believe that's the case then I'm sorry but you are deluded."

English Baccalaureate

He also said that no university required students to have the government's English Baccalaureate at GCSE. This covers English, maths, sciences, a language and history or geography.

"If anything, with GCSEs, we much prefer students to have high grades across a range of subjects," Mr Nicholson said.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: "We are putting universities, not politicians, in charge of A-levels to ensure they prepare children for work and higher education.

"According to [the exams watchdog] Ofqual, the clear majority of universities favour A-level predictions over AS-levels as an indicator of ability.

"Returning A-levels to single exams will end the test treadmill in sixth-forms - something which many teachers complain about."

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