Big changes to A levels are on the way. This will mean that A levels in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be different in terms of their structure and assessment methods.

In England, the A level will become a two-year ‘linear’ qualification with the AS ‘decoupled’.  In other words, the AS qualification will no longer count towards the overall A level grade but will be a standalone qualification in its own right and it will be optional for schools and colleges. Exam bodies are developing new AS levels for English students that can be co-taught alongside the first year of the A level programme, so that students can still be entered for the AS exams if their school or college chooses to offer this option.

From September 2015, schools and colleges in England and Wales will begin to teach the first batch  of new A levels, with additional reformed subjects being introduced from September 2016 and 2017.

Northern Ireland will begin to teach revised specifications from September 2016.

This means that the first major cohorts of learners holding revised A level qualifications in some subjects will be applying to higher education (HE) from September 2016 to begin undergraduate courses from September 2017.

Alongside all this change,  GCSE subjects are also being updated.  Applicants with complete profiles of new A levels will first apply to higher education in September 2018 but we will not see students  applying with complete profiles of reformed A levels and GCSEs until September 2020.

UCAS have just published a survey of schools and colleges attitudes to all of this and Mary Curnock Cook, the Chief Executive, says in her introduction:

England is currently experiencing an unprecedented level of qualification reform. Many changes are underway in a range of post-16 options, including vocational qualifications, apprenticeships and A levels.

At the same time, we have seen changes to the way schools are funded and how their performance is measured. From a university admissions perspective, the highest profile change to qualifications is the decoupling of the AS from the full A level. This change offers schools and colleges flexibility in designing their qualification offerings to suit the needs of their students. But, coming as it does, with the phased introduction of reformed A levels, this also creates new set of challenges for schools and colleges.

Responses to this survey paint a picture of a high level of uncertainty and anxiety amongst schools and colleges, and a wide range of responses to the A level reform. Only half of schools and colleges who responded to the survey are planning to offer AS qualifications in all reformed subjects that they offer from 2015. These respondents may have chosen this course of action having realised that increased teaching and learning time, one of the key intentions of the policy decision to decouple the AS, will not be fully realised until the 2017-19 cohort.  Schools might therefore consider that the most manageable and least disruptive option is for all students to undertake AS examinations until this point.

The main findings of the UCAS survey are:

  • 66% of respondents will offer standalone AS qualifications in their school and colleges in some or all of the reformed A level subjects. 16% of responding schools definitely won’t be offering the standalone AS; these are primarily schools in the independent sector.
  • 18% of respondents are still undecided about whether or not their school or college will offer their students the opportunity to take standalone AS qualifications from September 2015. Many cite a lack of clarity, information and practical challenges making it difficult to make a decision.
  • Secondary schools and colleges cite a diverse range of factors as influencing their decisions on the AS. As well as practical considerations such as funding, timetabling, performance measures, and university entry requirements, some believe that there is intrinsic value in a midpoint assessment. It is also clear from the comments provided that many schools and colleges are taking “a wait and see” approach, maintaining their current AS offer for now and reviewing their programmes once the full suite of revised A levels is available from 2017.
  •  21% of respondents do not know what their AS and A level programmes will be in 2017 when the full suite of reformed qualifications will be available.
  • UCAS identified over 15 possible A level programmes schools and colleges could offer from September 2017. The responses to this question indicated wide diversity in intended 16-19 provision nationally. Most state schools and academies that responded envisage that they will offer either four AS qualifications moving to three A levels, or a mixed programme combining reformed A levels (with the AS) with other qualifications such as BTECs. The most common offer from independent schools who responded is to offer three A levels with an Extended Project qualification.
  •  68% of respondents think that the qualification reforms will have no impact on the uptake of A levels, but 24% think that fewer students will choose A levels in future. These are largely state schools and academies.