Belfast Telegraph

Schools 'anxious' at A-level reform

There is a "high level of uncertainty and anxiety" among schools and colleges about the Government's overhaul of the A-level system, the university admissions service has warned.

Ucas chief Mary Curnock Cook urged universities to revise their admissions procedures to ensure that no student is disadvantaged as a result of the significant reforms.

Under the shake-up, which applies to England only, AS-levels are being separated from A-levels to form a standalone qualification from this September, while new tougher two-year A-level courses with exams at the end are being introduced over the next three years.

According to a new report published by Ucas, from 2017 sixth-formers could find themselves following one of more than 15 different A-level programmes, meaning that universities will need to be prepared for candidates applying with a diverse range of qualifications.

The study, based on a survey of almost 500 schools and colleges, reveals a desire among many for "greater clarity" about how the new courses will operate, Ms Curnock Cook said.

Two-thirds (66%) of those questioned said they will offer standalone AS-levels while 16% said they will definitely not be doing so - these are mainly private schools and colleges.

But almost a fifth (18%) said they are still undecided about what to do from this September, with many saying that "a lack of clarity, information and practical challenges" were making it difficult to make a decision.

More than a fifth (21%) of those polled said they do not know what their AS and A-level programmes will be in 2017 when the full range of new A-levels is available.

Ms Curnock Cook said: "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."

She added: "The survey presented more than 15 possible programmes that schools and colleges could offer from September 2017 but no dominant model emerged from the responses.

"This means that universities and colleges can anticipate a much greater diversity of qualifications held by applicants and they will need to revise their admissions approaches to ensure that no one is disadvantaged as a result of decisions made by their school."

Ms Curnock Cook went on to say that schools and colleges are looking to universities to explain how they will manage the changing situation, and called for all institutions to publish statements detailing how they will treat the new qualifications in admissions to ensure they are fair. Some have already published statements, she said.

She added that the situation is further complicated by the fact that in future, students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will be studying different qualifications that have the same name due to the three nations taking separate approaches to the exams.

"Reform in these three countries is also taking place on different timescales," she added. "Universities and colleges will need schools to explain what qualifications have been available to students as part of their references for university applications."

The move to decouple AS-levels has proved controversial, with universities, headteachers and MPs raising concerns.

High-profile critics include Cambridge University, which wrote to all schools and colleges in November urging teachers to continue to offer AS-levels. The prestigious institution has previously said that for admission to its courses, AS-levels are the best predictor of how well a student will perform in every subject except maths.

Ministers have argued that universities learn little more from knowing teenagers' AS-level results in addition to GCSE grades and insisted that the reform should not affect university admissions.

Labour has indicated that it would reverse the move, which would mean that AS-levels would remain linked to A-levels.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "By decoupling the AS level from the A-level, we are ending the routine of automatic, external assessment of students at the end of year 12. Removing this unnecessary burden from teachers and students means young people will have more time to study the fundamental concepts of a subject rather than sit through an endless treadmill of exams.

"Students will still be able to sit an AS before deciding whether to take a subject at A-level, but will no longer be required to do so by the Government, instead the decision will lie with students and teachers."

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said: "AS is a very valuable qualification. The majority of heads I've spoken to say they would like it to continue as a stepping stone to A-level.

"I'm not surprised that there is so much variation. There is a huge amount of change under way and we still don't know what the reformed A-levels will mean in practice."

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