If your child is starting his or her A-Levels this September in England, you may have heard that some radical changes have taken place.

What are these changes?

Since 2000, A-Levels have been modular, meaning that some exams are taken in the first year and some in the second year of the course. The first year, or AS year counts towards 50% of the overall A-Level result, while the A2 year, or second year, counts towards another 50% of the overall result. 

From September, A-Levels are becoming linear, with all exams being taken at the end of two years of study in the May-June period of Upper Sixth/Year 13 (and no exams in January). An AS-Level can be taken as a separate qualification, with exams at the end of the first year, however the marks from them will no longer count towards the final A-Level grade. In this way, the AS and A-Level have become ‘decoupled’.  At the same time, the AS and first year of A-Level are designed to be ‘co-teachable’ so if you are only pursuing the AS-Level you’ll be taught in the same class as A-Level students. 

Advocates of the new system claim that less modular courses will give pupils the opportunity to develop their knowledge of the subject; they’ll be able to read around the subject and be more curious with their understanding as there’ll be less time spent focusing on exams. It also prepares them better for university and gives them a broader education.

Assessment will mainly consist of exams, with other types of assessment used only when they are needed to test essential skills. Specific changes to assessment include science practicals. Under the old system, up to 30% of the overall A-Level grade was derived from the assessment of the pupil’s practical skills. Under the new system, 15% of the marks in the written exams will assess students’ understanding of practical work and will contribute to their overall grade. They will also be assessed on their practical skills separately, receiving an additional pass or fail which will be recorded on their qualification certificate.

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Each student will carry out a minimum of 12 practical activities over the two years, with the activities being referenced in the final written exam and contributing to their separate practical result. UCAS will ask your child’s school or college when they apply whether they are predicted to pass the science practical assessment in the same way they would an A-level. The requirement to pass is likely to vary - it may depend on the university and whether the course your child chooses involves lab and practical work. Where this is the case, they will make it clear in their entry requirements.

The content of the qualifications is also being reviewed to make sure it is up-to-date, however the standard of the qualifications will stay the same. What will also stay is the grading of the qualifications, with pupils able to achieve A-E at AS-Level and A*-E at A Level.  

Confusingly, the changes in the A-Level system are taking place over three years, with some courses switching to the new system this year with results coming out in 2017, some next year with results coming out in 2018, and some in 2017 with results coming out in 2019. In this way, your child may be taking subjects under both the old and the new system, with some AS-Levels and modular exams, and some exams only at the end of the two-year period. 

When subjects are due to change:

Courses changing in 2015 with AS results in 2016 and A Level results in 2017 Courses changing in 2016 with AS results in 2017 and A Level results in 2018 Courses changing in 2017 with AS results in 2018 and A Level results in 2019
art & design ancient languages (classical Greek, Latin) accounting
biology dance ancient history
business (replacing business studies) drama & theatre  archaeology
chemistry geography classical civilisation
computer science modern foreign languages (French, German, Spanish) creative writing
economics music design & technology
English language physical education electronics
English language & literature religious studies environmental science
English literature   film studies
history   further maths
physics   general studies
psychology   geology
sociology   government & politics
history   health & social care
    history of art
    information & communications technology
    law
    maths
    media studies
    music technology
    philosophy
    statistics

Why have the A-Level reforms been introduced?

In the 1990s, more students were staying on at school or college beyond 16 and, as higher education was becoming more inclusive, new, modular A-Levels, introduced in 2000, were created to fit this need. These A-Levels made level 3 qualifications more flexible and more appropriate for wider participation following more diverse paths through further and higher education.

However, this change meant that the new A-levels no longer fulfilled their original, narrower, function, of preparing students for academic courses at selective universities. Because of this, alternative level 3 qualifications flourished, such as the IB Diploma, while the Cambridge Pre-U was created in 2008 and was introduced in many of the big public schools. 

Theses reforms have been headlined at returning the A-level to its original two-year linear structure, making it more rigorous and robust, fulfilling the role of preparing students for university. 

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Photograph: photos.com

How will this affect your child’s university application?

It is unclear, as yet, what universities are expecting from their prospective students - whether they will generally look for three or four A Levels, or three A Levels and an AS like the current system. 

UCAS has warned that for the first couple of years, some students applying for places may be disadvantaged due to the confusion. If students do not take AS Levels - which can give an indication how well a pupil will do at A-level - teachers may over-predict or under-predict (through no fault of their own, especially in the first few years when they have to see how well their students achieve in these A-levels, as well as understanding how to teach them effectively). At the same time, universities will be unsure who to accept based on these predicted grades; it may be that they choose to be overly cautious at first. 

Universities will most probably continue to offer places based on three A levels - if there is a university your child is already interested in (!!) most of them have written guidance on what they are looking for - they will also be pretty lenient on whether you have an AS or not, as they know that not all schools will offer them and schools will be finding their A-Level feet as well. 

To add to the confusion, the new A-Level reforms differ in Northern Ireland and Wales: 

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, the AS will remain part of the A-level, with AS results contributing to the overall A-Level grade. Equally, marks for science practical skills will continue to form part of the overall grade for science A-Levels. However, the weighting of the AS will change, with revised AS qualifications making a 40% contribution to the overall A-Level grade. Colleges will be able to decide whether they offer these qualifications in a modular or linear fashion. They are allowed to choose who offers their A-levels - the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) is the most common awarding body in Northern Ireland, with approximately 75% of the overall market share, and they are also updating their A-level qualifications, mainly for content, which will come into teaching in 2016. 

Wales

Wales are revising their A-Level subjects in line with England. The changes to these qualifications are largely around content, with these subjects sharing similar content with their English equivalent where possible, however there may be differences when there is a need to reflect a Welsh perspective.

A-Levels in Wales will continue to have an embedded AS qualification. However, the weighting of the AS in reformed A-Levels will be reduced to 40%, meaning that a student’s achievement in the second year of A-Level study will make up a greater proportion of their overall grade. 

Practical or controlled assessment will be retained in subjects where it plays an important role and will continue to contribute towards the final grade.

At the same time, the teaching of the new Advanced Welsh Baccalaureate will also begin in September 2015. This seeks to develop a number of different skills such as literacy, numeracy, personal effectiveness, critical thinking and problem solving through the completion of three challenges and an Individual Project, which together comprise the Skills Challenge Certificate:

  • individual project - an independent, research-based assignment on an individually selected subject. Students demonstrate the knowledge and skills to produce a written investigation, or an artefact or product supported by written research. 
  • enterprise employability challenge develops enterprising skills and attributes and enhances employability.
  • global employability challenge - to help students understand and respond appropriately to a global issue.
  • community challenge - helps students identify, develop and participate in opportunities that will benefit the community.

Your child will still need to achieve supporting qualifications, such a minimum of two A-levels or other qualifications at level 3, and A*-C in GCSE Maths and English or Welsh. This new Baccalaureate will be graded A*-E at Advanced Level.

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