Glyn Jones, Assistant Principal for A Levels, provides the answers to frequently asked questions about the changes to A Level qualifications and offers advice for students considering their choice of subjects.
What is happening to A Levels – how have they changed from the current/old format?
In 2012, the Secretary of State for Education initiated a programme of reform of A Levels with the intention of making them a better preparation for higher education; one of the features of the reforms was that they should involve universities. The review was led by Professor Mark E Smith, Vice Chancellor of the University of Lancaster, and published its first recommendations in March 2014. For most of the courses reformed so far, there has been relatively little change in the content, but more changes in both the emphasis on skills (especially the integration of maths skills) and, most importantly, the format and style of assessment. The key changes in assessment are as follows:
- A Levels have become linear, which means that all of the assessment takes place at the end of the second year of study. With old-style A Levels, the AS exams which students sit at the end of one year of study not only count as a qualification in their own right; they are also the first 50% of the overall A Level. Under the new system, there will still be AS qualifications and, as with old A Levels, they will still be of a level of difficulty which is between those of GCSE and full A Level. However, they will not contribute to the A Level in any way. The content of the AS will continue to be material which is also in the A Level.
- Where possible and appropriate, maths skills are integrated into A Level specifications. This means that students will learn new maths skills and, in some cases, will need to develop their skills beyond those needed for a ‘pass’ grade in GCSE.
- Practical skills in sciences will no longer be assessed in a way which directly contributes to the A Level grade. Instead, students will be required to complete a set range of activities and there will be some exam questions relating to practical science.
Are all A Levels now linear?
Not yet. There was always intended to be a staged introduction of linear A Levels. For York College subjects, this means the following:
Art and Design
English (Lang, Lit and Lang/Lit)
History (Modern and Medieval)
Drama and Theatre Studies
Government and Politics
Will students still be expected to take AS exams?
Yes. In common with York school sixth forms, the College will continue to enter all A Level students for AS exams at the end of their first year of study. For the ‘old’ A Levels, these scores will count towards their final A Levels; for the ‘new’ ones, they won’t. We are continuing with this because:
- Universities have made it clear that they will continue to use students’ AS grades when considering their applications
- Students will still need to show that they are performing well enough at AS in order to be allowed to progress to second year A Level study – remember that the A Level exams will be more demanding than the AS exams
- If students do not continue a subject into their second year (most will take 4 subjects in their first year and 3 in their second), then they will have a qualification in that subject which will count towards their university application or be recognised by an employer
- When students decide which subjects to carry through into their second year, an AS will help them make a well-informed decision
Is York College’s take/stance on the new Linear A Level typical of most A Level providers?
Yes. UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) surveyed a large sample of A Level providers and found that around two thirds were continuing, at present, in the way described above. All schools and colleges have had to consider whether they wish to abandon the AS, and whether they still wish their students to have the breadth of four subjects in their first year, and the choices that this brings in their second year. We will continue to look closely at how well the new AS qualifications sit alongside A Levels, as well as at the expectations of universities and employers and ensure that, whatever we are doing, it is in the best interests of our students and their success.
Can you offer some advice and guidance for students who are currently applying for A Level?
I wouldn’t encourage students to be particularly influenced by whether a course is linear or not. It is much more important to ensure that you are choosing subjects you believe that you will enjoy and do well at. It is a good idea to look carefully at which of your chosen courses have a lot of coursework – there is a danger, if you have too many subjects with a lot of assessment through coursework, that all of the deadlines will come at once and you can find yourself overloaded. In the case of linear A Levels, the coursework will tend to come at the end so it isn’t always immediately apparent so please check the course guide or the College website.
The A Level timetable - why a 4 day week?
Our A Level timetable provides AS students and A Level students with a 4 day week. AS students will not normally be expected to be in College on a Tuesday; for A2 students it is a Wednesday. The College day runs from 09.00 to 16.30. Students receive 4.5 hours of teaching per week per A Level subject.
Why does York College do this?
- To allow students a day on which to carry out work placements. These are a crucial part of many students’ study programmes – sometimes to prepare them for work at 18, and sometimes because they need that experience to gain a place at university, e.g. for medicine, nursing, teaching.
- Because we want to reduce the weekly cost of travelling to College. We are aware that many of our students – especially those living outside the City of York – will benefit from a reduction in the price of transport. By compressing study into 4 days, we can give most of these students a 20% reduction in travel costs.
- We would like to be able to take students out on trips without disrupting lessons in other subjects. By putting most enrichment activities into the study/work experience days, we are able to reduce this impact, and ensure students get a broader and more exciting learning experience.
Condensing the timetable in to 4 days just means that students have 4 busier days, rather than 5 less busy days.