A shot in the arm for A levels

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Two consultations over A level reform come to an end this week. Isabel Nisbet from the A Level Content Advisory Board, set up by universities to advise government on the changes, offers her reflections.

In April, I started a new job as executive director of the A Level Content Advisory Board (ALCAB), which had been set up in response to an invitation from the government to the Russell Group of universities.

My previous experience of A levels had been as the first CEO of Ofqual, the regulator of qualifications and exams in England, followed by three years working for Cambridge International Examinations in South East Asia and living in Singapore. 

As I flew back to the uncertain British summer, I wondered what I had let myself in for.

Policy decisions on assessment for A level had already been made: a move from modules to terminal exams, the controversial “decoupling” of the AS qualification, and a stiff regulatory test to be applied before “non-exam assessment”, such as coursework, could be included.

The government’s 2010 White Paper had promised greater involvement of universities in influencing the content of A levels, but it took a while to get arrangements for that up and running, and meantime the steamroller of the reform timetable was moving on.

A first sift of A level subjects was carried out by awarding organisations, under the chairmanship of Professor Mark Smith, to judge which needed more fundamental review of their content in order to be suitable for the new format. 

As a result ALCAB was asked to review three subject groups: modern and classical languages; mathematics and further mathematics; and geography. By the time I arrived work on each was well down the road, and in July 2014 our reports were published. 

The Department for Education (DfE) is currently consulting on the content of new A levels, including those reviewed by ALCAB, for first teaching in 2016. Their consultation closes tomorrow (Friday, September 19).

Despite the awkward timing, I hope that as many teachers as possible will be able to respond. Ofqual is also consulting and you get an extra few days to respond to them, until Monday (September 22).

Looking back on my three months’ involvement in this process, and on the reaction to the reports, how does it feel now? Well, although the subjects we reviewed were very different, there were some common themes. 

The panels were aiming, above all, to breathe new life into the qualifications. They wanted the subject-matter of A levels to be engaging and rich, rather than a recycling of generic topics that had already been studied at GCSE. 

They were not seeking to make the A levels more difficult than the current qualifications. However, they were aware that by specifying what was required in more detail than had previously been done, the content might look more difficult, and they very much hoped that students, their parents and teachers would not be put off by that. 

And all the panels believed that the AS qualification was valuable and valued by universities. They made recommendations to enrich the content of AS levels, and they fervently hoped that students from all backgrounds would continue to have the opportunity to study for them. 

Surveying the scene now, I am struck by three things. First, there has been a shift in the overall balance of power between assessment and curriculum considerations in the design and review of A levels. I had long experience, both at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), and then at Ofqual, of the need to balance curricular issues with assessment requirements. 

At that time I was flying the assessment flag and I won some arguments with curriculum experts at QCA, but lost others. That was probably right. All of us were trying to support the overriding aim of good education. 

Bringing together expertise and advice on curricular aspects of A levels is not arranged in the way it used to be. A range of organisations have contributed their pennyworth, but there is a lack of cohesion on the curriculum side of the balance, and a danger that assessment considerations will always prevail. 

Second, it follows on that once final decisions are made on the content of the new qualifications, it is important that the spirit as well as the letter of these requirements survives the rigours of the accreditation process in which Ofqual checks the details of the assessments designed by the exam boards. 

Subject experts, including universities and the subject associations, need to continue to be involved as the new qualifications are designed and implemented. 

Finally, we need to remember that on the whole the A levels are good qualifications now, and our work is designed to make them better. 

The Singaporeans used to tell me that they were amused by the English saying “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. They say: “Even if it isn’t broken, take it to bits, study it and see how it can be improved.”

Admittedly, the programmes of educational reform in Singapore are not as rushed as ours are. But if the result of ALCAB’s work is richer, more engaging A levels, it will all have been worthwhile.

  • Isabel Nisbet is executive director of the A Level Content Advisory Board (ALCAB).

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