A conscious uncoupling: the AS level as a standalone qualification

Mary Curnock Cook on what reform in England could mean for admissions

June 26, 2014

Source: Miles Cole

Will schools continue to offer AS exams once A levels in England have been reformed? In a recent select committee hearing, Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief regulator, admitted that the answer to this question involves a “bit of guesswork”. Schools, she added, were “very keen to hear from higher education as to how they are going to value and rate AS levels”.

At the moment, the AS is part of a system of staged assessment and AS results contribute to the final A-level grade. Under the new system of A levels, which will affect undergraduate admissions from the autumn of 2017, all A-level assessment will take place at the end of the course and the AS will become a stand-alone qualification that is optional for schools. Wales and Northern Ireland will stick with the current arrangements; only England will decouple the AS and A level.

So what might this mean for entry requirements, offer-making and admissions to higher education? Currently, some higher education courses accept students with a mix of one or two A levels and some AS achievements and/or vocational qualifications. But for students focused on academic qualifications, three A-level grades remains the standard entry requirement. Few universities stipulate any AS requirements, and usually only for very competitive courses such as medicine, where an AS grade in a fourth subject might be required in addition to the usual three A levels.

Another reason why admissions offices rarely include any AS requirements in their conditional offers is that some (mainly independent) schools do not register their students’ AS grades until the end of Year 13.

So the AS is not commonly used in entry requirements, offer-making or admissions – but students still need it to achieve an overall A-level grade. Many students start sixth form studying four subjects and whittle it down to three after receiving their AS results.

When the new A-level system is introduced, students will be able to achieve their A-level grades without an AS. It is hard to envisage universities introducing a new admissions requirement for AS achievement for students in England only.

Universities will be reluctant to state entry requirements involving qualifications that are not routinely offered in all secondary providers for fear of unfairly disadvantaging some students.

As a result, on the face of it, the new stand-alone AS will have little intrinsic value for progression to higher education. What, then, will a new “normal” academic sixth-form curriculum look like, and what is the potential role of the AS examinations in Year 12?

In deciding whether to offer anything more than a straight three-A-level programme through Years 12 and 13, schools will need to balance the advantages of the AS – a broader curriculum and an externally assessed progress-check – against the potential disruption to the Year 12 summer term if some students take time off classes for revision and AS exams.

Initially, because of the phased reform of A levels, secondary providers will need to grapple with a mixed economy of new and old-style A levels; they will not see the back of the old AS exams until 2017. We may have to wait until the summer of 2019 for a clearer picture to emerge.

Much depends on funding. But will the government fund a full portfolio of AS examinations when one policy aim of the reforms is to gain teaching and learning time in the Year 12 summer term? It is difficult to see how universities will be able to maintain fair admissions policies across England, Wales and Northern Ireland unless they stick with the current standard offer of three A-level grades for courses requiring academic preparation.

There are, it appears, few incentives for schools and colleges to do anything other than revert to the old-style three-subject A-level programme in England, although the extended project and the new core maths qualifications could offer a useful extension of the curriculum. And perhaps some admissions offices might consider some offers covering two A levels plus three AS grades.

Whatever the outcome, secondary leaders will need to work with the higher education sector to develop curriculum models that will both support progression to higher education and offer a workable approach to teaching, learning and assessment throughout the sixth form.

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