The most bonkers idea of them all…

Sometimes it’s a good thing to be both a teacher and a parent. You understand how to get the best out of revision time for your child. You can see through those little white lies at parent’s evening (and equally have a proper understanding of how knackered that young teacher you’re talking to is). You pretty much know the truth of what lies underneath newspaper headlines and refuse to accept that some subjects are ‘better’ than others. You steer your child through as best you can on your inside track. But every now and then something happens where you are as bewildered as anyone. This is such a time.

I’m sorry for pushing another ‘my child’ story down your necks. This middle one will leave home in a couple of years and then I’ll only have one to moan about. Bear with me. He’s in the middle of the most mental GCSE period our kids have ever seen – some sitting between 24 and 32 exams in the space of a couple of weeks. And that’s set to get worse. But now, holy cow, he’s going to college.

He’s doomed to be on the scrapheap of wasted talent and economic resource as it is because he loves Art. And after that he loves English. And he fancies trying Philosophy. So already, according to Nicky Morgan, he might as well be euthanised.

For those of you who don’t know, this year the government have decided for their next trick that they’ll uncouple AS levels from A Levels. They are separate (sort of – see below). But they’re not really because the content for the AS is still half of the A Level. It’s just that if you want to do the AS, you’ll sit the AS exam, but then if you want to do the A Level, you’ll have to sit all the content you revised for that exam all over again. Your original AS level will count for diddly squat.

He wants to do four subjects but he’s not sure what he’ll drop, so to be on the safe side he’ll take AS levels in all four. The college he is attending is insisting that all pupils do this anyway to keep their options open, even though they have to make huge budget cuts and not doing AS levels would save a LOT of money. They’ve made a decision that their students would be better off with a set of grades on their UCAS application forms and a broader range of subjects in Year 12. Down the road, another college is dropping AS levels altogether and insisting that kids choose their three now. Another college is letting kids choose. The difference between colleges is marked and yet most pupils have no idea that these changes are taking place or that different places are taking different decisions. If I was a parent I’d be outraged. Oh, wait, I am.

Apparently, according to twitter, it’s even more complicated than that because some subjects are not having AS and A level uncoupled yet. And some are. But we as parents and he, as a child, have no idea which subjects are which even though my husband works in the place he’s going to. If even the teachers are confused how on earth are the students supposed to make informed decisions?

I hark back to when I taught the old legacy A Level – the linear 2 year A Level that ended in 2000. I loved it. We didn’t touch the syllabus until well into the summer term of Year 12. Before that we built a strong foundation of knowledge and experience that went way beyond the syllabus and into a passion for the subject. It was a wonderful freedom and I think greatly enhanced results. But I understood when things changed that there were strong benefits for some pupils – those who might go through two years of a course and fail. Or those who might decide after one year that they’d had enough but still leave with qualifications. I got it and on balance thought the change to AS/A Level was a good one. But this is neither one nor the other.

Under the ancient old system, he’d have Year 12 free of exams. Under the newly old system, he’d have Year 12 with exams, but would have bagged half of his A Levels. Under this rancid new system, he’ll have a Year 12 of exams. And then another year of the same exams because the scores from the first year won’t count. How is that fair in anyone’s mind?

Pity the poor admissions tutor at university. From the same town, even in some cases from the same college, he or she receives applications where some students have AS grades and some predicted grades. Will the predicated grade be inflated? Is a bird in the hand worth two in the bush? Or will that C at AS (that belies the fact that the kid has really worked hard to improve and will probably end up with an A) sully their chances of an offer? Will universities (as Cambridge have suggested) move to their own assessment/selection systems? What a mess.

Eldest child chose 4 AS subjects. His 3 ‘preferred’ were History, Maths and Philosophy. But he added English Lit as a fourth, figuring he’d drop it at the end of the year. He’s just graduated from Oxford University with a degree in English. He dropped Maths at the end of Year 12 instead (sorry Nicky – yes that’s him begging in the doorway of Tesco). He’s one example, but I bet there are many other cases in which a student meets an amazing teacher and discovers a passion for a subject he didn’t know he loved.

I don’t actually know what to suggest. Other than shout RUN and head for the IB. We’ll muddle through no doubt, but this is a shambolic policy that puts children and teachers in an impossible situation. To have provided so little time for preparation and given so little information to parents is a disgrace. Shame, shame, shame on you Department for Education.

18 thoughts on “The most bonkers idea of them all…

  1. Hi Debra,
    I don’t teach in the U.K. nor am I familiar with the exam system. But to be sitting between 24-32 exams in the span of some weeks is definitely the most insane idea I ever heard.

    1. The whole exam system is insane because of quickly implemented, ill thought through policy making. Even if you agree with the linear argument (and I have some sympathy with it), rather than pushing all the modular exams together so that children sit so many in such a short space of time, the sensible thing would have been to take some time and to condense the exams into longer sessions over a greater period of time. That same shortsightedness is now playing havoc with the A Level system. Sigh.

  2. Debra, I have one of these (a child!) coming up to GCSEs soon but of course who knows what they will look like by then – apart from the “choice” lie (any subjects you like as long as it is the set of subjects that we think have value” they madness of the high-stakes low impact tests that are GCSEs.

  3. You can just treat the AS Levels as mock exams / end of year exams, a bit like having Year 10 mock exams / end of year exams. The only difference would be that he would have the option, should he so wish, to get some credit for one of this mock exams should he decide not to continue to A-Level. Seen in this way it doesn’t seem quite so bad from a student’s point of view, though it’s a very expensive way of holding mocks for a school.

    1. Well, apart from the huge expense, and the fact that the ‘mock’ will be shared with universities and carry huge pressure with no real gain, and that in a large sixth form, the logistics of carrying out those exams means suspending the timetable which means no lessons and learning….apart from all that, not so bad.

  4. This was inevitable once the politicians decided they knew best with regards to education. They can’t resist the temptation to tinker and find that even harder when an election looms. I don’t know when or even if it will happen but at some point we have to take education out of their hands. What should have happened was for them to beef up the independent Her Majesty’s Inspectorate and to follow the recommendations of the Independent reports produced by Plowden, Bullock and Cockroft modified by more recents reports with a similar independent brief instead of the bigoted and politically biased rubbish imposed on our unfortunate young people.

    1. DONWITHIT, there is a small but growing campaign you might like to consider supporting, seeking to bring about the sort of change you seem to be after. Take a look at

      Debra, I think you have done a great job in alerting those parents who subscribe to Love Learning about the current madness of examination reform. I have a nine year old grandson. Obviously, he’s not part of this crap, yet. It is my hope, though I am not convinced, that by the time he gets there, either all the political parties will have honed their commitment to fair play and common sense, or better still they will have taken my advice and trusted the fate of our education service to a National Education Commission. Ever the optimist, Hey!!

  5. I still find it all rather confusing.

    When I did my A Levels I did 4, and dropped one at the end of my first year, thus gaining me 1 AS Level and 3 full A Levels.

    With the new system, if a student did the same 4 AS Levels and then dropped one), would they not even achieve an AS qualification?

    I know that the system is changing but I can’t get my head around exactly how.

    1. I think the problem is in the fact that there are so many variables. So what you describe can happen, but the three others you have sat won’t count for anything – you’ll basically have to sit those exams again a year later. But many schools/colleges are telling their kids to enrol for 3 A levels and are not doing AS at all. Which means fewer staff are needed and they save money on exam entry and invigilation, but pupils then need to be pretty certain they’ve chosen the right subjects, which is bad news for subjects that aren’t traditionally done at GCSE – these subjects are often the fourth choice initially, but then enjoyed and kept on.

      1. So the new A Level grades are purely based on one exam at the end of both years (since we have to disregard the first year)? How flipping stupid.
        What is the point of having them over two years then if the first is a complete waste?

        Can students still drop a subject after one year then? Even if they’re taking it as a full A Level instead of an AS?

        My brain hurts.

  6. Debra. You are right. It’s a crazy system. As soon as we have cabinet ministers with 16 year old kids going through this labyrinth, it’ll come to an end. I’ve just come back from Finland, putting together a piece for TES, and they just laughed, sighed and stared wide-eyed when I told them about aspects of our system like this!

  7. A brilliant post Debra and as a teacher of one of the first decoupled subjects and also a subject seen as a waste of time I can just see my numbers (which are already tiny) getting even smaller. At present I have 8 yr13 students and 14 yr12’s. and if numbers don’t increase it will no longer be “economically viable” to run the course – which means goodbye job for me!
    At open evenings I look like an idiot because I can’t explain the changes that are taking place, which then doesn’t inspire trust I am a competent teacher.
    I am at a loss of what to do but something needs to be done before the system (ie teachers and students) reaches critical mass.

  8. I feel your pain. 1 doing A levels 1 doing GCSE and hubby about to implode with ‘ they’re modern kids’ syndrome . Agree entirely with you…Thanks D of Ef. 😬

  9. I currently teach A/S Language to my top GCSE students. I love it – I kid myself that they enjoy it, too. We do it outside school, in their free time and they work hard. This year is the last year I can do it because guess what? Under the new Progress 8, the A/S English qualification goes into the same ‘pot’ as GCSE English and also takes precedence. So if a student gets an A at GCSE and a D at A/S, the D will be counted, not the A.

    Because of this, I have been told to enjoy this year and then stop offering the A/S qualification to Year 11. So that’s that. Same for Maths. In one fell swoop, we have cut a chunk from our G&T (MAT) provision at KS4. It is bonkers. We are becoming as mediocre as we are increasingly uniform. Grr.

  10. When I went into the sixth form (1984-1986), I studied 4 subjects (English, History, German, General Studies). At the end of the first year of 6th form (Lower Sixth,1985), I sat 4 internal exams. In the January of Upper Sixth (1986), I sat my ‘mocks’ and in the Summer of 1986, I sat my ‘A’ levels. I have 4 ‘A’ levels. No one was awarded ‘AS’ levels (they didn’t exist) and I studied for 2 years, with the exam at the end of the 2nd year. University places were offered on the basis of predicted grades. Am I missing something here with all the above arguments regarding the ‘first year counting for nothing’?. Isn’t that like saying that every year completed in school, from Year 7 to 11 should count towards your GCSE???

    1. Anneliese, we were in the same year! In 1984, we will both have sat O Levels – one exam per subject on average a total of no more than 10. This year’s GCSE students are sitting between 24 and 30 exams in a two week period. For A Level, let’s remind ourselves how little effort we had to put into General Studies (which laughably, most universities accepted as equal to our other subjects). So really we sat 3. 2% of the population went to University, Russell Group offers averaged BBC. Nowadays Russell Group offers average AAA. We had it so easy. Mocks were mocks. No-one saw them except your teachers, your school could inflate your predicted grades to get you into college. These AS non exams will mean that pupil’s progress at the end of Year 12 will be used to make judgements on whether or not to offer them a place, but they won’t actually count for anything else. The reason the system changed in 2000 was to allow for students who had decided that A Levels weren’t for them after all, to leave with a qualification, but also to ensure that Universities were making offers based on real achievement not on guess work. These changes mean that there will be no consistency across the system. And then factor in the pupils who would have liked to have taken a smaller subject – Classics, for example – but now find that because the AS level has been removed in their school it can no longer be staffed. We golden oldies were extremely lucky to be in a less competitive pressurised environment.

  11. The exam system in England has been reduced to a shambles thanks to meddling by Michael Gove in the name of ‘rigour’ and (allegedly) matching England’s exam system to the world’s best. But most of the rest of the developed world don’t do high-stakes exams at 16. If they do, they are few in number, confined to core subjects and used to decide 16+ progression not to judge schools. Very few have exams at 17 – although Hong Kong has rolled O and A levels together to form a final graduation exam taken at 17..

    Most of these countries have graduation at 18 often via multiple routes. But her in England we overburden children with more exams than are necessary and put far too much emphasis on exams at 16.

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