Monday, 6 February 2017

New Year, Old Story ‒ A Level Reform

In 2014, changes that would see A Levels altered to consist only of a series of exams at the end of the two years, rather than the then system of exams at the end of each year were announced. Previously, AS Levels, typically taken at the end of the first year, constituted 50% of a student's A Level grade, with A2 exams, taken at the end of the second year, providing the other 50%. Under the reforms, AS Levels will no longer count towards a final A Level grade. Students starting their A Levels in September 2017 will do every subject in a linear format.

These changes entail a direct move towards an all-or-nothing, high risk style of examination, the same style of examination which is explicitly endorsed by those who decry the UK's unfavourable position is global league tables for STEM, especially when reference is made to the education systems of Singapore, Japan, China and South Korea, amongst others.

One may wonder whether this is intrinsically bad. To fairly consider this question, we must look at what appears to be the underlying notion of the policy change; higher standards make it easier to differentiate students by their academic ability, and mean that students are more rigorously trained in their subjects before they go to university or into employment. However, higher standards, particularly when they are suddenly introduced, can have the effect of simply sabotaging students, in the sense that many who might have achieved better grades under the old system may end up getting worse grades. They may retain their relative position in the distribution for A Level grades, however this is not guaranteed.

In a different sense, the aforementioned ease of differentiation by academic performance may not be universally desirable. Some may argue that more than ever, a greater emphasis on having a genuine curiosity about one's subject is necessary, and as such it may be better to have a system more like the one which is being phased out, where university candidates are considered on the strength of their interview performances and relevant extracurricular activities.

As many have noted, a greater emphasis will now be placed on predicted grades, which aren't always reliable, GCSE grades, which are also being reformed, and admissions tests, another variety of high-risk examination, although they already form a part of the university admissions process for many subjects.

It is incorrectly assumed by some that raising 'standards' favours academic meritocracy whilst also increasing the value ascribed to a qualification in the eyes of businesses and further education institutions; it is vital to consider that as A Level specifications change, an overwhelming advantage will accumulate in the corner of those who can afford private tutoring, with the vast majority who cannot do so being left at a disadvantage as exams become more difficult.  

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