What changes are happening?
We are making a series of reforms to A levels in England in the coming years. Some of these changes result from improvements we want to make as regulator, following research we have published on current A levels. Some of the changes result from policy decisions by Ministers. We advise on and have to take account of Government policy when it affects qualifications.
The reforms include changes to the structure of the qualification, the introduction of a standalone AS qualification and arrangements for the involvement of higher education in future A level design.
We announced last autumn that 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 level studies. A levels will still be examined unit by unit, but all exams will be taken in the summer exam period.
For the longer term, we are working on further changes that will bring in:
- A change to the structure of assessment within A levels so that the qualifications are fully linear. This means all assessment will be undertaken at the end of the course, rather than at the end of each year of A level study.
- A standalone AS qualification that is “de-coupled” from an A level. This means that the results from the new AS will not contribute to a full A level qualification.
As part of preparing to introduce these reforms, the curriculum content requirements of current A levels will be reviewed. The current requirements are set out in ‘subject criteria’. We want to be satisfied that these requirements continue to support and promote the delivery of high quality courses of study and provide a suitable basis for progression to higher education.
The four awarding organisations that offer A levels in England (AQA, OCR, Pearson Edexcel and WJEC) have agreed to review the curriculum content in the following subjects:
- mathematics and further mathematics
- English (language, literature, language and literature)
- art and design
- business studies
The awarding organisations’ reviews will be based on feedback from higher education, and the views of teachers and learned societies are also being considered. Awarding organisations will make recommendations on whether change is required, or not, in a particular subject. These recommendations will be made to a panel of awarding organisation Responsible Officers*, and to ensure a fair and balanced process this panel will be chaired by Professor Mark E. Smith, vice-chancellor of Lancaster University, a 1994 Group research-intensive university. The panel will review the recommendations and supporting evidence presented by the awarding organisations and will consider the levels of change proposed.
Final recommendations about the level of change required, and the evidence on which it is based for each A level subject under review, will be made by the panel to Ofqual. We will then consider whether to accept the recommendations and/or whether any of the changes proposed will require further consultation.
At the same time, we will be looking at the assessment arrangements for these qualifications and considering any changes needed to exams and other assessments following the content reviews. In principle we will combine our views on assessment with those on content for our Board to consider in unison.
For the subjects list above where little or no change is needed, we expect awarding organisations will start revising qualifications in line with the new assessment structure in the autumn. The intention is for these qualifications to be available to schools and colleges in autumn 2014 and to be ready for first teaching in September 2015.
For the subjects listed above where more significant change is required, we will need to look to universities, including the Russell Group, to consider the subject content requirements, and there will be a need for further consultation. We expect that new A level qualifications in these subjects will be developed for first teaching from September 2016.
A levels in other subjects will be revised to a longer timescale to bring them into line with the new linear structure. We will say more about this in due course.
* A Responsible Officer is the person in each awarding organisation who is ultimately responsible for the standards of all exams offered by that awarding organisation, as required by our General Conditions of Recognition.
Why are the changes happening?
Between June and September 2012 we ran a consultation on A level reform. The consultation was launched following the 2010 Government white paper, The Importance of Teaching, and an exchange of letters in March and April 2012 between Ofqual and the Secretary of State for Education, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP. You can download the letter from the Secretary of State to us and our letter to the Secretary of State. The consultation was developed using a range of research on A level assessment, on perceptions of A levels and on similar qualifications used internationally (see ‘Research’ below).
The consultation reflected the evidence of our research and set out our proposals for the structure of A levels and what assurances we would want from exam boards about how they involved higher education in future A level design.
The consultation received over 1000 responses from parents, students, schools, colleges, higher education and employers.
The findings report can be downloaded here – Analysis of the consultation carried out into higher education involvement in GCE A levels and amended GCE A level criteria (design rules)
You can also download the following:
Equality analysis of the A level reform consultation
Impact assessment of A-level reforms.
Since we conducted the consultation there has been further policy development from Government.
In early 2013 we exchanged further letters with the Secretary of State, which confirmed more clearly his policy intentions around the future of the AS qualification and of the design and content of A levels. You can download the letter from January from the Secretary of State to us and the letter from March from the Secretary of State to us. You can also download our letter in March to the Secretary of State.
In that letter we confirmed that the consultation we had carried out, along with other factors such as our equality analysis, put us in a position where we could act consistently with the policy being set out. The reforms do not impact on our ability to maintain standards.
The letter also confirmed that we had quickly responded to the Secretary of State’s request to consider, with exam boards, what other subjects could be reformed alongside the ‘facilitating subjects’ first mentioned in his letter to us in March 2012. The subjects being reviewed are listed above and we are working with exam boards on designing review activities for the wider review of all subjects in the future. We are using the responses we received in our consultation about the extent of higher education’s involvement in the review process to help us consider how future review processes should look and be regulated.
See all our news updates about A level reform.
Comparative analysis of A level student work, final report – This piece of work aimed to understand the impact of the structural changes to A levels under the legacy model and the current state. It focused on evidence of any difference, or similarities, between the 2008 and 2010 specifications and students’ performance in exams, with particular reference to stretch and challenge and the introduction of the A* grade.
Comparative analysis of A level assessment outcomes for 2008‒10 (executive summary only) – The purpose of this study was first, to establish whether overall outcomes in selected subjects were similar between 2008 and 2010, and whether this was true at unit as well as qualification level, and second, to show whether the patterns of candidates re-taking units were similar between 2008 and 2010.
Fit for Purpose? The view of the higher education sector, teachers and employers on the suitability of A levels – This work was commissioned to gather views on A levels from a wide range of stakeholder groups including HE, employers, learned bodies, teachers and awarding organisations. It identified the perceived quality of A levels, and also identified areas where people thought changes could be made to A levels to improve the course of study and help develop students’ skills.
International comparisons in senior secondary assessment - We have carried out an international comparability study of A levels and equivalent qualifications. The research reviewed exams, covering a representative range of subjects, including judging their comparative demand and looking at the design of assessment across the qualifications.