A-levels … are they fit for purpose?

On Tuesday 15 July, the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee held a discussion meeting to consider the poignant question ‘A-levels – Are they fit for purpose?’ If the last 10 months are anything to go by, it is fair to say that most stakeholders from the education, scientific and industrial community would unanimously agree, no. The majority would also cite the structure and curriculum content of A-levels as two key reasons why. However, it is evident from the widespread response to the science A-level reforms, which are to be implemented in 2015 that opinions remain divided on what should be done about this.

The Committee received three addresses from Ofqual, UK Deans of Science and CasE, who also attended the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee in May, to consider ‘How practical are the new science A-level reforms? Other Committee members included representatives from schools, Further and Higher Education (HE), as well as other learned societies.

Contrary to the issues which have dominated education policy this year, Dr Michelle Meadows, the new Director of Research and Evaluation at Ofqual, reported that in the past ten years there has been a steady and growing confidence in A-level performance. In 2012, Ofqual found 80% of surveyed stakeholders, which include parents, schools, HE representatives and employers, had confidence in A-levels. Nonetheless, this was not without serious discourse about the curriculum content and structure of A-levels.

Following the ‘modularisation’ of A-levels in 2000, there were concerns they had become less demanding as universities reported the majority of students were performing well. This resulted in another review in 2008 and a ‘de-modularisation’ of A-levels from 6 to 4 units. Open ended questions and greater synopticity was introduced to help make A-levels more challenging. However, HE representatives and employers continue to report that students lack real in-depth understanding of subject knowledge, independent inquiry and critical thinking skills, all of which can also be associated with the re-sitting culture which has developed over recent years. On average, 43% A-level students have re-sat at least 1 unit, and 25% have re-sat 2 or more units.

As a result, Ofqual are confident that the new reforms including the removal of January exams this year, is a step in the right direction towards the linear A-level qualifications in 2015. With all assessments to be sat in the summer term, more time will be available for teaching. Although Ofqual’s remit does not cover approving the curriculum of A-levels, Dr Meadows reported HE representatives are now more involved than ever before. Every A-level has 60% core content of which there is standardised Maths content for Biology, Chemistry, and Physics; 10%, 20% and 40% respectively.

Controversially, the separation of the practical skills component from the theoretical content for Biology A-level remains open to debate. Dr Meadows reported that the separate endorsement will help resolve problems like predictable assessments, lack of evidence and marks not truly reflecting a student’s ability. As students are expected to complete a minimum of 12 practicals, Ofqual are working with the awarding bodies to develop a series of evidence gathering tools such as student logbooks. Dr Meadows concluded stating Ofqual is committed to its ongoing research on the impact of teaching on learning. This will prove detrimental to measuring the impact of these reforms on educational outcomes.

Professor Ian Haines, the Executive Secretary of the UK Deans of Science then looked toward the success of Ireland and Scotland which offer a broader education system and generally produce more able students in comparison to England, Wales and Northern Ireland combined. Professor Haines made several recommendations which he believed would help make A-levels more fit for purpose. This included having a broader education system for 18 year olds, such as the Scottish International Baccalaureate, introducing compulsory STEM subjects up to the age of 18 and teaching students about the overlap between traditional disciplines.

Upon considering the new science A-level reforms, Professor Haines went onto recommend that having one awarding body and making vocational qualifications as acceptable as academic qualifications, would help make science A-levels fit for purpose. Decoupling the theoretical content from the practical skills, which will be assessed separately from 2015 onwards, sends the wrong message to schools. A ‘pass or fail’ connotes a devaluing of the practicals and is likely to have serious implications on the educational outcomes of students in schools particularly where resources and funding are limited.

The concerns raised by Professor Haines were echoed by Dr Sarah Main, Chief Executive Officer at CaSE, which is the leading independent advocate for science and engineering in the UK. Industry is seeking to employ people who are competent in their knowledge and understanding, as well as their practical ability. Research shows that the UK needs to double the number of engineers by 2020 to keep abreast of the skills shortage gap, which it is currently falling short of.

Dr Main stressed that the recent reforms will hinder efforts to maintain curiosity in  STEM. This includes the national network of Science Learning Centres, a joint initiative between the Wellcome Trust and the Department for Education, and the more recent YourLife Campaign launched by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

Students need to have rich practical experience throughout school to university to meet the needs of academia and industry. Taking practical assessments is more than just about producing reliable results, but should be valid and must take place in a relevant setting too. Dr Main concluded that the science A-level reforms were not fit for purpose and recommended stability in education policy, compulsory STEM up to the age of 18 and a stronger, better connected community of teachers, scientists and engineers as the best way forward.