A levels: remaking the grades

Will Michael Gove’s reform plans endanger the traditional values he seeks to promote? Jack Grove investigates

August 15, 2013

Academics give their time because they recognise it is a valuable thing to do, but if the workload increased they might ask whether it is worth it

“You don’t refuse a politician as wily and savage as Michael Gove,” says one vice-chancellor seeking to explain why universities are helping the education secretary with his A-level reforms, despite their much-publicised concerns about some aspects of the changes.

Since Gove unveiled plans for universities to take “ownership” of A levels – to “drive the system” and guarantee standards – he has faced criticism not only from the usual academic opponents to Tory-led education reforms, such as left-wing professors and the unions (or “the Blob”, as the minister likes to call them), but also from those some might consider his natural allies, such as the UK’s most highly selective universities.

The Russell Group of research-intensive institutions, particularly the University of Cambridge, has spoken out against the decision to make AS levels optional for schools by turning the examinations into stand-alone qualifications and separating them from A levels. It also says that existing A levels are “broadly fit for purpose”.

Yet the Russell Group has agreed to take a central role in revising the exams. It will vet A levels in so-called “facilitating” subjects deemed particularly important for university entry, such as mathematics, sciences and modern languages.

Other universities will assist in redesigning the qualifications. The first revised exams will be taught from 2015 while A levels in subjects deemed to require more extensive changes will reach classrooms in 2016.

Of course, it is not just fear of Gove – who has made no secret of his desire to bring universities under his remit – that has prompted this cooperation. Universities have a clear and obvious reason for collaboration: to ensure that A levels help young people to gain the skills needed to succeed at the undergraduate level.

One concern, however, relates to the level of resources Gove’s desire for greater input from universities will require. Will this become an additional and unwelcome demand on scholars’ time?

Mark E. Smith, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University and chair of the panel that recently reviewed the broad content (known as the “criteria”) of the 13 most popular A levels, argues that by engaging actively with the reforms now, universities will help to avoid large numbers of busy academics being drawn too far into the bureaucracy of qualification design further down the line.

Smith believes that universities have a duty to “respond and add value” to the exams, but also notes that they “are not directly resourced to carry out such work”. Any A levels requiring major changes will go to the Russell Group’s new A-level Content Advisory Body for review. Alcab will, in time, review A-level criteria and more detailed specifications. However, the group’s level of involvement is not yet clear, with Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor at the University of Warwick, stating that the Russell Group’s input should be “as light touch as possible”.

Smith says: “It is in everyone’s interests to have A levels that are robust and fit for purpose, but of course universities need the process…to be as efficient as possible.”

Many scholars already help to set existing A-level courses, so how might their increasing involvement change the exams?

Cillian Ryan, dean of liberal arts and sciences and Jean Monnet chair in European economics at the University of Birmingham, is one of hundreds of academics shaping existing courses. He meets several times a year with teachers, business leaders, economists from policy thinktanks and other specialists to discuss what skills and content the economics A level set by the exam board Oxford, Cambridge and RSA (OCR) Examinations should include.

He insists that “academics are heard” in discussions about the existing qualifications, despite the fact that they tend to make up only about 10 per cent of the 20 to 30 unpaid specialists who attend the meetings every few months.

He adds that if you were to replace the panel with one containing “80 per cent academics, you would lose some of the valuable experience that other practitioners bring”.

And if academics were to sign off individual exam scripts – a possible role for Alcab’s subject panels – this could lead to significant changes, Ryan says.

“If you gave academics that power, it would represent a different level of engagement and responsibility.” However, he warns that such a duty would increase academics’ workload, which might scare off many participants.

Debra Myhill, professor of education at the University of Exeter and a participant in OCR’s English A-level subject forum (scholars make up 35 per cent of its members), agrees.

“Academics give their time freely because they recognise it is a valuable thing to do, but if the workload increased they might ask whether it is worth it given that their priorities are research and teaching,” she says.

Myhill, too, thinks it would be wrong to lose the rich variety of subject specialists currently involved in the forum (which includes representatives from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Association of Writers in Education, among others) in favour of more academics.

How else might Gove’s reforms affect universities?

One of the most immediate changes will occur in admissions offices. The decision to “decouple” AS and A levels from 2015 means that admissions staff will almost certainly have to make many more offers based on applicants’ predicted A-level grades and GCSE results rather than AS marks. As a result there will be less information on candidates, so highly selective universities may struggle to identify the strongest applicants, warns Andrew Bell, admissions tutor at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

“AS levels are the most useful, up-to-date and reliable measure we have of a student’s ability,” says Bell, who is also deputy chair of the admissions forum at Cambridge. “If you mine down behind the grades, they become extremely useful.”

He explains that students applying to Cambridge are asked to submit a breakdown of their marks to allow tutors to see their exact grade.

In May, David Laws, the schools minister, said that government analysis had shown GCSEs to be better predictors than AS levels of whether or not students would get good degrees. Cambridge responded by saying that this did not reflect its research, which has found AS scores to be more reliable indicators.

Feature illustration (15 August 2013)

The qualifications will drift apart over time. Will an A grade in Wales be the same as an A in England? There is no clear way to work this out

The university has warned that decoupling AS and A levels may also hamper its efforts to widen participation.

“This change is unnecessary and, if implemented, will jeopardise over a decade’s progress towards fairer access to the University of Cambridge,” it warned in a strongly worded statement in January.

Some students from disadvantaged backgrounds do not dazzle at interview in the same way as better-supported candidates from private schools, Bell explains. If such students have already done well at AS level, this takes the pressure off as they “do not have to prove it all” on interview day. Bell raises the possibility of a two-tier admissions system emerging at Cambridge, with colleges making lower offers to students holding good AS levels, while applicants armed only with less-reliable predicted grades may have to hit higher targets to prove they have the right stuff academically.

Other universities share similar concerns.

“GCSEs are pretty poor indicators of A-level and degree performance,” agrees Michael Merrifield, admissions tutor at the University of Nottingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy.

Another significant consequence is the probable break-up of a national examination system: Wales and Northern Ireland are likely to retain existing A levels with modular assessment. This is another factor that could cause problems for admissions offices, Merrifield adds.

“There is every likelihood that the qualifications will drift apart over time,” he says. “Will an A grade in Wales be the same as an A in Northern Ireland or England? There is no clear way to work this out, so we may have to change the offers we make.”

Experts also warn that changes to AS levels may pose another more serious, long-term threat to higher education.

One benefit of the old system was that sixth-formers were able to choose four or five AS levels to study in their first year, knowing that they were free to drop one or two subjects in their final A-level year, thus providing them with an opportunity to sample a wider range of subjects. Without this system, many might shy away from trying out subjects they perceive to be difficult, says Jonathan Prest, principal of Barton Peveril Sixth Form College in Eastleigh, Hampshire, one of the UK’s largest sixth-form colleges (it teaches about 2,500 students).

“Choosing A-level maths, for example, is a big step and students need a lot of assurance and support that they can do it,” he says. “If students can ‘get out at half-time’ with a reputable qualification, they’re more likely to give it a go. They might find that they do very well and progress to A level, maybe to a degree.”

Until now, a large number of students appear to have followed this pattern: each year some 300,000 AS levels are taken without the matching A2 level.

Decoupling AS and A levels may therefore reduce take-up of the traditional subjects that Gove is so keen to support, predicts Prest.

He asks: “Will students take the risk of doing maths, science or a foreign language, which are seen as challenging? Or will they say, ‘I can’t take the risk’?”

There are also concerns that the attempt to make A levels more rigorous – including the decision to end January resits from next year and examine students only at the end of their two-year courses from 2015 – may drive many students away from the qualifications altogether, thereby harming the pipeline that produces such a significant (but declining) proportion of today’s undergraduates.

The 19 per cent slump in students taking A-level maths when the exam was revised a decade ago shows the dangers of this approach, Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, has pointed out.

“I know Curriculum 2000 was about 10 years ago, but people [have] forgotten that if you make A levels tougher, you will depress participation and…achievement,” she told a conference in October.

Where might students put off by “tougher” A levels go? Some may drop out altogether, but others might be attracted in even greater numbers to vocational courses such as the newly unveiled Tech levels (see Qualifications and training: the age of reformation box, on page 3), which will gain the same status as A levels from next year if they attract the support of at least three universities.

If this happens, it would accelerate a trend away from A levels and towards vocational courses. The proportion of 16- to 18-year-olds entered solely for academic qualifications fell from 70 per cent in 2008 to 51 per cent in 2012, while the proportion taking vocational courses rose five-fold, according to Department for Education figures. When this trend is combined with the demographic decline in the number of 18-year-old Britons, there will be 12,000 fewer A-level students by 2018-19, but 4,000 more doing vocational qualifications, the DfE predicts.

This would be bad news on several fronts for the academy, argues Andy Westwood, chief executive of GuildHE.

“Unlike A levels, most vocational qualifications face the labour market,” notes Westwood, making students taking them less likely to enter higher education. Such students “have other options than just applying to Ucas to study at one of five universities – they could go directly into the labour market”.

Of course, many students currently progress from BTEC qualifications to degree courses. However, the progression rate is lower and Westwood explains that the options for further study are more limited than those available to students with A levels.

“The vast majority of [vocational sixth-form study] is happening in further education, where students are much more likely to come from disadvantaged socio-economic groups,” he says, adding to concerns that poorer students increasingly may be pushed down the vocational track.

Some university leaders also privately question whether they want more students with vocational qualifications, arguing that they generally require more academic support and are more likely to drop out.

Universities may need to get ready to fish for undergraduates from a smaller pool of applicants, and one that is less likely to contain students holding a clutch of AAB grades in traditional A-level subjects. Westwood warns: “There are lots of factors conspiring together, including demographic trends, examination reforms and changes to universities’ recruitment models, that might make things very challenging for higher education.”

Feature illustration (15 August 2013)

Qualifications and training: the age of reformation


  • For core courses, starting in 2015, G-A* grades will be replaced by grades 1-8 and tougher pass marks
  • Two-year courses will lead up to exams
  • No modules
  • Reduction in coursework
  • No resits, except for English and maths
  • Tiered exam papers for students with different abilities in maths and science only.

AS and A levels

From September 2013, students in England will no longer be able to sit A-level exams in January in either their first or second year of A levels, ending January resits.

Stand-alone, separate AS levels are being introduced from 2015, “decoupling” the qualifications from A levels. This means that the results from the new AS qualification will not contribute to a full A-level qualification. A levels will also become linear, meaning that all assessment will be undertaken at the end of the course, rather than at the end of each year of A-level study.

Exam boards have been reviewing the curriculum content of maths, English, science, history, geography, psychology, art and design, sociology, business studies, economics and computing A levels based on feedback from higher education and the views of teachers and learned societies.

They have made recommendations about whether or not change is required in each subject, reporting to a panel of exam board officers chaired by Mark E. Smith, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University.

Smith’s panel has made final recommendations to Ofqual. Ofqual is now considering whether to accept the recommendations and whether any changes proposed require further consultation.

  • For subjects where little or no change is needed, the new linear A levels will be taught from September 2015.
  • For subjects where more significant change is required, universities, including the Russell Group, will consider the subject content requirements, and there will be further consultation. Revised A-level qualifications in these subjects will be taught from September 2016.
  • A levels in other subjects will be revised to a longer timescale.

Tech levels

Taught from September 2014, Tech levels will be an alternative to academic study for 16- to 19-year-olds, designed to raise the status of vocational qualifications. They will appear in performance tables from 2016.

The qualifications have three components:

  • A sizeable level 3 vocational qualification
  • A level 3 “core maths” qualification (to be devised)
  • An extended project qualification.


From August 2013, traineeships of up to six months will be available for 16- to 19-year-olds, with possible extensions up to the age of 24 “in due course”. They include:

  • High-quality work placements
  • Preparation for work
  • English and maths tuition
  • Possible progression to apprenticeship, work or continued education
  • Guaranteed job interview in work placements.

Be prepared: changes will lead to ‘deeper understanding of subject’

When explaining the rationale for his A-level reforms, the education secretary Michael Gove often cites discussions with “leading university academics”, although he is loath to mention them by name.

Some scholars, however, are certainly happy to publicly back key elements of his plans.

For example, Michael Merrifield, admissions tutor at the University of Nottingham’s School of Physics and Astronomy, welcomes proposals for a “tougher” maths A level, believing that the current qualification does not stretch the country’s brightest pupils.

“When you are getting students achieving full marks in an exam [as we see now], it is telling you that the exam is not working,” he says. (As Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, pointed out in an article for Times Higher Education last year, some 7 per cent of A-level English candidates achieve A*, while 18 per cent achieve “purportedly the same standard” in maths.)

Meanwhile, the Russell Group has welcomed the decision to end January resits and “bite-sized” learning modules, arguing that end-of-course exams lead to the deeper understanding of a subject required at the undergraduate level.

Colin Rogers, professor of social psychology in education at Lancaster University, believes that the rise in bite-sized learning may help to explain what he believes to be unrealistic expectations among today’s undergraduates about the level of support they will receive from their tutors.

Students used to highly structured, exam-focused courses may arrive at university expecting the same level of guidance once given by their teachers on what to do, how to do it and when they have “done enough”, Rogers says.

He stresses that university education needs to help students develop into independent and autonomous learners. And he is certainly not alone in arguing that current A levels value a “highly strategic approach to learning” rather than a passion for the subject.

Rogers suggests that the spoon-feeding of sixth-formers may also help to explain universities’ relatively poor National Student Survey scores in assessment and feedback.

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