Education Secretary Michael Gove has confirmed changes to A-levels in England that will mean pupils will take exams at the end of two-year courses.

Pupils are expected to begin the new A-level courses from autumn 2015.

AS-levels will remain, but as a standalone exam, and leading universities will play a bigger role in maintaining standards.

Labour accused the education secretary of turning the clock back and narrowing young people’s options.

Head teachers’ leader Brian Lightman said: “This is a classic case of fixing something that isn’t broken,” while the Confederation of British Industry expressed concern that the plans did not link up with other educational changes, particularly to GCSEs.

Students in Scotland have a different exam system while the devolved governments in Wales and Northern Ireland will make their own decisions about whether to implement the changes to A-levels.

In a letter to exam regulator Ofqual, Mr Gove says A-levels in their current form do not provide the solid foundation students need.

“The modular nature of the qualification and repeated assessment windows have contributed to many students not developing deep understanding or the necessary skills to make connections between topics,” writes Mr Gove.

From 2015 what Mr Gove describes as “bite-sized” units will be scrapped, with the qualification returning to exams taken at the end of the two-year course.

At the same time the AS-level would no longer be a stepping stone exam that counts towards a full A-level but instead become a stand-alone qualification.

The AQA exam board said that it was “disappointed” that AS-levels would become stand alone rather than part of the wider A-level.

There will be a bigger role for leading Russell Group universities in supervising the content – although this might take the form of organising committees of specialists, rather than taking direct responsibility.

The introduction of an A-level Baccalaureate – closer to the International Baccalaureate – which had been discussed last year does not appear as part of this package.

Stephen Twigg, Labour’s shadow education secretary, rejected the argument for the changes.

“It’s no wonder leading universities like Oxford and Cambridge say this is a mistake. We need to have more high quality options available at age 16, including all young people studying English and maths to 18.”

Teachers’ unions say the changes to A-levels are being taken forward in a cavalier fashion based on thin evidence.

Chris Keates, leader of the teachers’ union NASUWT, said such profound changes should not be contemplated lightly.

She said: “Rather than recycling the incoherent grumblings of a few isolated and unrepresentative academics, the secretary of state should take note of the fact that there has been no clamour for reform of A-levels from the greater part of the higher education sector and survey evidence has found little concern that A-levels fail to prepare learners for the demands of study at university level.

“Employers have not identified A-levels as problematic.

“It should be a matter of grave concern to all that the development of A-level specifications is to be farmed out to a small group of elite universities.”

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said the decision flew in the face of overwhelming feedback from a recent consultation that found that the “current system needs tweaking but is broadly fit for purpose”.

ASCL’s general secretary Brian Lightman said: “The argument that A-levels are not preparing students adequately for university is contradicted by the fact that one in six achieve first class honours – a three fold increase over the last 13 years.”

“It is disappointing that this has ignored the overwhelming views of the teaching profession, academics, employers and universities to retain the link between AS and A level. AS provides an opportunity for students to take a fourth subject and decide at the end of year 12 which three to specialise in.

Neil Carberry, the CBI’s director of employment and skills said: “Businesses want more rigorous exams but we’re concerned that these changes aren’t being linked up with other reforms, especially to GCSEs. We need a more coherent overall system.”

Mr Carberry said the scrapping of modules would go some way to ending the exam treadmill but said that businesses as well universities should be involved in drawing up new syllabuses and qualifications… “so they meet the needs of the workplace.”

The announcement comes as protests grow about Mr Gove’s plans to scrap GCSEs and replace them with English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs) from 2015.

Campaigners will hand in a letter to No 10 Downing Street later urging Prime Minister David Cameron to rethink the pace of reforms of exams.


- 22nd January 2013