AS good?

The AS-level saga indicates deeper problems with UK secondary education.

David Perks

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Kumaran is a bright lad, with aspirations to study aeronautical engineering at Cambridge University. He has just finished his AS-level examinations and is about to resume studying for his A2s.

I asked Kumaran what he thought of the examinations he had just sat. ‘Well, they’re going to scrap the AS next year, aren’t they?’, he replied.

The AS/A2 examinations replaced the A-level system for post-16 education in England and Wales this year. The AS is examined in the first year, with A2 being the possible continuation of the subject into the second year to make the equivalent to a full A-level.

This year, the first group of students sat the new AS-level exams. And if the reaction from my students was anything to go by, the AS has created more confusion than anything else.

‘My dad wants to shoot the guy who designed these exams’, said Parag. ‘Why are we the guinea pigs, when they’re only going to go back to the old A-levels?’, asked Mohammed.

Why this vocal consternation, from usually reticent 16-year-olds? Because no sooner was the ink dry on the exam papers than the very people responsible for AS-levels were questioning their worth. Estelle Morris, the new UK secretary of state for education, made it her first major act in the job to bow to pressure from the press and the National Association of Head Teachers, and launch an immediate inquiry into the AS examinations. The inquiry reported back to parliament in mid-July, endorsing an immediate retreat on the number of examinations to be taken – only one three-hour examination per subject in June of Year 12 – and the withdrawal of Key Skills as a mandatory part of the assessment structure. This has severely undermined the confidence that Kumaran and his peers have in the exams they have just taken.

The intervention of Nick Tate, former head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), did nothing to help matters. As head of the QCA, Tate oversaw the introduction of the AS examinations. He is now the head of Winchester School – and this new role, he says, prompted him to admit that he ‘got it wrong about the AS’, and that pupils are ‘over-examined’ in Year 12.

Tate’s conversion has not endeared him to the majority of staff and students at my school. Washing his hands of responsibility for introducing the AS after the event does not absolve him of criticism – on the contrary, it makes his original decision to introduce the AS even worse. But it is the timing of his criticism – hitting the press in the middle of the busiest week for AS examinations – that particularly annoyed my colleagues. This would be an ill-thought-out move for the headteacher of any school, let alone for a founder of the examination, and head of one of the most prestigious schools in the country.

Bad timing aside, however, there are major criticisms to be made of the AS examination. And while I have sympathy with most of the points raised against the AS, I believe a crucial aspect has been overlooked: namely, that the introduction of the AS represents a significant lowering of educational horizons about what it is possible to teach a student post-16. The introduction of the AS curriculum has seen schools move even further away from the goal of providing students with the intellectual framework they need to master a subject.

When Nick Tate claimed that students were being ‘over-examined’ he touched a raw nerve. The UK government’s policy to improve schools is based almost entirely upon extending the formal examination of students at every possible opportunity. Target-setting and open accountability are seen as the major driving forces in pushing up standards in schools. So the AS examinations are to be followed up with the introduction of examinations in Years 7 and 8, and schools are encouraged to fast-track students through their Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) and GCSEs early. There was the – now aborted – attempt to introduce Key Skills testing in Year 12.

From the government’s point of view, a year without a formal examination is a wasted year – one that cannot be accounted for. And the idea that students should take time to develop an understanding of different strands of a subject, in order to gain a coherent overview, is anathema to present government thinking.

The problem is that, while formally assessing students at the end of a course gives students a chance to bring their complete knowledge to bear upon an examination, attempting to do this too early is inevitably damaging. The formal separation of topics into modular examinations limits students’ perception of the connectedness of the content.

Tate makes these criticisms, and I agree with them. But it should be noted that this process has been going on for some time. Modular A-level examinations have practically eliminated the traditional end-of-course examination in mathematics and the sciences. English, the arts and humanities may have been more resistant to this trend, but in general there is little hostility to the tendency to compartmentalise knowledge. The assessment of coursework – now solidly established as part of all A-level courses – is based on strictly defined criteria, designed to assess particular skills. The delivery of coursework is entirely suited to a modular format, as it allows for the packaging of particular skills within the context of a particular module.

In this sense, the introduction of the AS exam is just the logical culmination of a process that has been going on for some time. It formalises across the whole curriculum the practice that has already been adopted in most subjects.

Advocates of the AS originally claimed that it would broaden the curriculum of students post-16. It will be hard to judge whether this has happened until the current cohort go into Year 13. But although the Department for Education and Employment (now renamed the Department for Education and Skills) has claimed that 72 percent of pupils are doing a fourth subject at AS, in my school the figure is closer to 40 percent.

Whether these are in widely different subjects, or whether they just stay within the confines of a traditional subject grouping, is yet to be resolved. However, if the attitude of the universities is anything to go by, the pressure on students will be to carry on as before. Despite the introduction of the new UCAS tariff, which gives points for Key Skills, AS-, A- and Vocational A-levels on an equal footing, the more traditional universities are still asking for three grades at A-level and ignoring the AS altogether. The new universities accept points amassed from any route – but even so, the likelihood of students studying seven different AS subjects over two years looks pretty slim.

So what are we left with? An examination that resembles a modular A-level, and allows a minimum amount of flexibility above and beyond the three straight A-levels previously studied. If that were the only consequence of the introduction of AS, there would not be much of a problem. But the AS curriculum and exam have helped bring about more fundamental changes.

By introducing the AS curriculum, the QCA has deliberately pushed the examination boards to drop the standard of the AS to halfway between A-level and GCSE (I have heard examiners say that the standard of the AS is in fact little higher than an old O-level). The promise is that the A2 course sat in the following year will drag the examination up to A-level standard, predominantly through the introduction of a synoptic paper – a paper that draws from the whole breadth of the course, and so challenges students’ comprehension of the entire subject, rather than just one segment.

However, one examiner pointed out that his examination board would avoid making this too demanding by including a comprehension test as part of the A2 examination, and including part of the synoptic element in the coursework assessment. This would have the effect of reducing the synoptic element to a mere 20 percent of the A2 examination. Given its importance in raising the standard of the A2 up to that of an A-level, this does not seem very challenging.

Also, it should be made clear that no new content is introduced with the synoptic paper – so it effectively reduces the content introduced in the A2 as compared with the AS. In the first year of my course we deliver two complete modules and one half module. In the second year we will be asked to deliver one complete module and one half module, as the synoptic element replaces a complete module at A2. This description, which applies to my subject, physics, is repeated in different forms for other subjects.

Consequently, the situation I find myself in, as a physics teacher, is that I cannot tell my students the proper definition of a force until Year 13, having to make do with an intellectually undemanding simplification in Year 12. To put it another way, students are deemed incapable of learning Newton’s laws of motion in Year 12. These laws form the cornerstone of mechanics and are fundamental to grasping even a seventeenth-century conception of nature (Newton’s theory of mechanics, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, was published in 1687). But because teachers are barred from teaching the basics, we are supposed to skirt over difficult concepts like quantum physics as if they were cake recipes, in which only a few ingredients need be mixed together to get the right result.

The effect of this is to deny pupils the ability to deal with difficult abstract concepts. This might not stop them from passing their AS exams – but what does it mean for their understanding of the subject?

While on a visit to an Oxford college with some of my pupils earlier this year, the physics tutor there told me that, even though the physics degree course had been extended to four years, they were still having real difficulty covering the material. I asked him what he thought would happen when the AS pupils reached university. He replied, ‘my colleagues are considering totally ignoring what schools have done and starting completely from scratch’.

David Perks is a physics teacher in south London.

Read on:

Fragmenting education, by Toby Marshall and David Perks

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