AS levels to be scrapped?

AS levels will not be scrapped. The sensationalised headlines do not reflect the proposals that have currently been aired by Michael Gove, the new Education Secretary.

What Gove is suggesting is an alternative qualification for the more academic, university-bound student. Indeed, as he says, such an alternative already exists, in the form of the Cambridge pre-U, although it is available only in a small number of subjects and in a very small number of state schools. It is an invitation to other university-led institutions to put together rival qualifications, just as there are a number of rival boards for GCSE.

It is a broad hint that in the fullness of time, such alternative qualifications will not only be allowable in state schools but also funded in the same way as A-levels.  Until funding is in place, the take-up and public awareness of such qualifications will remain limited.

We have already seen the same government strategy applied to GCSE-level qualifications where it has already been announced that the IGCSE qualifications shunned by the last government will now be acceptable in state schools. IGCSEs, e.g. those set by Edexcel, will appeal to many schools because of their academic rigour and because they do not entail coursework. Coursework is very fiddly to administer and it is believed that coursework favours girls rather than boys so boys-only schools will be keen to adopt specifications that do not entail coursework.

Has the modularisation of A-levels also favoured girls and enabled them to overtake boys in terms of A-level achievement? While no alternatives exist, it is difficult to evaluate this theory. A bigger problem with modularisation has been the opportunity to re-take modules in order to get a better result. To many, a Grade C achieved at the third attempt is not really worth as much as a Grade C achieved after a single year of study, without any retakes, but there is no obvious mechanism to differentiate between the two. Certainly, universities would find it much easier to distinguish between candidates if they have all taken exams once only at the end of the course.

To many, IGCSEs are O-levels by another name and the new qualification proposed by Gove is a return to the old A-level system. Many educationalists see this as elitist and retrogressive but others will argue that after two decades of “dumbing down” in school qualifications, in order to keep students of widely varying ability in school to the age of 18, it is about time, we gave more able students the chance to prepare for university in a way that the universities themselves want.

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