Schoolzone blog:AS levels - business as usual: for now

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19 Jan 2015

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UCAS have asked 500 schools about their intentions for offering reformed AS levels in their ‘Unpacking qualification reform’ paper published last week. There are some issues we’d take with their interpretations of the findings and the fact that they don’t seem to have weighted or contextualised the data, but on the whole, they’ve found pretty much the same as we did, when we interviewed heads of department about their intentions at about the same time UCAS did.

The reason we used a telephone interview approach was that we thought schools wouldn’t really be in a position to say definitively yet, what they will do about AS, and surveys tend to make report readers think that numbers are more meaningful than they really are. It’s understandable that universities – and hence UCAS – want to know numbers, but they should be very careful about basing any planning on the numbers given in this report – teachers may sound a lot more confident that they really are.

Independent schools in particular stand out from this survey as being more confident than state schools, for example a higher proportion already say that they won’t offer all the reformed AS-level subjects, apart from art an economics.

Subjects which schools generally are least confident about are, unsurprisingly, computer science, English language and lang/lit. These are less popular than near alternatives and tend to be offered by schools large enough to attract reasonable numbers.

A quarter of schools have yet to decide whether to offer the reformed AS from September next year. The surprise really is that so many teachers are saying that they have decided what they will do: school leadership teams will be consulting with department heads and governors to consider whether they should offer the new qualifications, given that there is no external driver to do so. On the other hand, the removal of modular exams caused a dip in results for many school last year, and they see the value of external exams at the end of Y12 as a motivator.

Further uncertainty is added to the mix as result of Cambridge and other universities applying pressure to keep AS results to support university applications.

The UCAS report offers this rather lame suggestion to schools to cover this difficulty:

To support an applicant’s reference, schools and colleges should consider putting information on their own website about the qualifications they offer and the rationale for this. For example:

“We have chosen to offer the AS examination in both reformed and unreformed A level subjects first taught in 2015 and 2016 as it is more manageable for us to timetable and is less disruptive to students.”

We suggest that schools and colleges include a link to this page within an
applicant’s reference.

This is not an option that schools will be terribly interested in exercising.

Around 10% of state schools and academies have already decided not to “offer AS” to all students – by which we take it to mean that they will not enter them for the exam. Almost three times the proportion of independent schools will not offer them. Around 15% will offer them only in some subjects.

One of the problems with this survey is that it asks teachers to respond in definite terms (predefined category responses) to things which they really are very unsure about and which they are very likely to review frequently over the next two to three years.

A further weakness of this report is that it doesn’t acknowledge that teachers don’t like change (this observation isn’t meant as a criticism), so tend to anticipate the worst when change is imposed on them. For example, 23% say that “fewer students will undertake A-levels in favour of other qualifications”, but the researchers haven’t gone on to try to quantify ‘fewer”, or probe more deeply: one less is “fewer” and respondents could simply mean that fewer will go on to A-level, since AS is an “other qualification”.

Most teachers assume that things will carry on as now, so that’s probably what will happen at first, by and large, then things will evolve in ways which schools cannot yet anticipate.

Where the report gets interesting is in providing quotes from universities about how they will deal with the range of applications from students with, and without AS levels, or with four AS levels rather than three. Not that anything is resolved by this, but the range of quotations makes for interesting reading.

There is one other interesting section, which asks respondents about why they are unsure as to whether or not they will enter students for the AS. The answer isn’t the most obvious “funding”, but in fact a wide range of issues. An important observation that the report misses is that the funding (the lowest ranked factor) is a reason not to offer AS, whereas almost all the high ranked factors are reasons why they should.

Schools seem to be thinking, really, why shouldn’t we offer AS? What are the advantages in not doing? A bigger uncertainty is whether schools will continue the four AS / three A-level model. The survey attempted to answer this, but the question is so badly designed that no reliable conclusion can be drawn (16 response options given; several options possible; no numbers reported …). What the report suggests is that is the most common option is to carry on with the 4/3 model, but that actually, even more schools haven’t yet decided.

So, in a nutshell, the current thinking seems to be that schools don’t really know what they’ll do, but by and large they’ll probably carry on doing pretty much what they’re doing now until something compels them to do otherwise. This doesn’t make a riveting conclusion to a study which someone has gone to some effort to conduct, but frankly, it probably wasn’t a good idea to ask about these issues using this methodology in the first place - yet. If only UCAS had popped down the road and asked us first!




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