The Perse School

A level reform and the law of unintended consequences

This week The Perse took part in a local radio debate on exam reform. The politics of the reforms remains a favourite topic of the media, but – given that they are now only months away from implementation – students and their parents must get on with the tough task of working out how to avoid the inevitable associated pitfalls.

Nowhere is this truer than in choice of sixth form. The sixth form is the all-important final stretch of school education, when all the hard work of the previous thirteen years comes to fruition. There is much to accomplish in a relatively short time, and the stakes are high. Good choices, attitude and approach pave the way to opportunity at university and beyond; mistakes invariably lead to missed chances and hard decisions.

Before the days of modules, A levels used to be ‘linear’. The introduction of modular A levels in 2000 was designed to make the qualification more accessible, and to ensure that students who left at the end of Lower Sixth did so with a qualification (AS levels). Modularisation brought myriad unintended consequences, of course – some arguably bad, including grade inflation and reduced time for the extra-curricular activity that is so essential for balance – and some good. In particular, regular exams increased student and teacher accountability and meant that everybody in the classroom worked that bit harder.

The government’s decision to return to exams only at the end of the two year A level course – that is, linear A levels – is driven by a desire to replace piecemeal assessment with a measure of whole subject understanding. There is some debate over whether this is the right approach for all subjects, but broadly it is a noble aspiration; whether or not it is achieved remains to be seen. While we await the results of this latest government educational experiment, the student subjects of it and their parents will need to make very careful decisions about where to study.

Post-reform, there will only be one bite at the examination cherry. Gone are the days when a disappointing grade could be rectified by resitting one module paper. Instead, students will need to take a year out and sit the whole qualification again. The quality of sixth form education has probably never been more important. This puts a premium on the calibre of teachers, and on their ability to meet each student’s needs.  In an ideal world, sixth form classes should be much smaller than their GCSE equivalents so that staff can provide the differentiated teaching and support needed for students to succeed at this more demanding level.

Strong pastoral support at this age strikes a good balance between allowing students to develop the independence needed for study at university and supporting them to ensure they stay sufficiently on-track to get there. Without regular module exams to keep students focused, those who have yet to develop the necessary self-discipline may struggle. This was a common problem with the old linear A levels; some students meandered their way through the first four terms hoping that a late burst of study in the Upper Sixth would put things right. For some, it worked; others found out too late that it led only to disappointing results, missed university offers and a nerve-wracking experience in the clearing process.

We also must not underestimate the pastoral stresses caused by the return to linearity. Generations of students brought up on a diet of modular learning and ‘bite size’ assessment will suddenly have to sit all-or-nothing terminal exams. For some this will be an alien and anxious experience. When we last had linear exams, three Bs would get a student into most good universities. Not so today, when the same universities are asking for A and A* grades. The pressure on students to achieve in the Upper Sixth A level exams will be immense, and this pressure will need careful pastoral management by experienced tutors who really know their tutees and have sufficient quality time to support their needs.

There is considerable evidence of a good correlation between AS modules and eventual degree performance; thus, top universities use AS exam results as a selection tool. Without this data they will need to rely either on GCSE results and A level predicted grades, or introduce new admissions tests to be sat in the autumn of the Upper Sixth. GCSE does not reliably discriminate well at the top end, while a 2013 government study found that only 42% of A level predicted grades were accurate – and that is before the volatility in grades of newly reformed exams. In recent years there has been a growth in the number of admissions tests for competitive courses like medicine and law; this trend seems set to continue. It becomes increasingly important for sixth forms to have well-resourced university advice and preparation programmes.

No doubt reform will be a hot topic at sixth form open evenings this autumn. Students and their parents will be well-advised to ask searching questions of the schools and colleges they are considering.

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