A level reform: Progress and next steps

Ofqual's Chief Regulator gave a speech on A level reform to Westminster Education Forum.

Photo of an examination hall

Good morning.

It is good to be here at what should be an interesting morning. You will be hearing from some of those directly involved in the reform of A levels – Isabel Nisbet from ALCAB, Professor Mark Smith, Paul Dodd of OCR, Gareth Pierce of WJEC – and from others, well placed to comment. I do hope you find the morning worthwhile.

As I am first to speak, I have the chance to set the scene and also to debunk a few myths. Let me do that.

A levels are still the most popular qualification at key stage 5, still the most common entry qualification for higher education. Our national and international research shows that they are still highly respected, both nationally and internationally. What is more, our 2012 research shows that when compared to equivalent qualifications in other countries in Europe, North America, East Asia and Australasia, A levels compare well, albeit we did find differences.

So for example, students at this level generally study fewer subjects here than in the other countries we evaluated, and they study them here in greater depth. We cut depth versus breadth differently, with the focus on depth within a subject rather than breadth across subjects, and leading to a three year degree course rather than four. And our three year degree courses are popular with international students as well as with our students here.

So our A levels are off to a good start when compared to other individual qualifications internationally, because we do not operate a baccalaureate style system, but expect instead the deeper study of individual subjects in A levels. Elsewhere, students are required to study a number of core subjects – English and Maths being common – and then choose from a range of other subjects as well.

We are unusual then, in the freedom of choice that A level students enjoy as they choose subjects freely here, and in the limited of number of subjects they generally study.

We have also been unusual in the amount of optionality we have in our current suite of A levels. From our comparative research we can see that in the other countries, subjects usually have a common core of subject knowledge (content), and noticeably fewer if any choices – optional routes through the qualification.

We also found differences in assessment, for example, the more prevalent use of sophisticated multiple choice items in assessment elsewhere. Here we find multiple choice less attractive, and associate it with lower demand – and yet we can see that designed well, it can be sufficiently challenging and enable much more of the subject to be assessed. Of course it suits some subjects much more than others.

So far as comparing specific subjects is concerned, I was struck in our research by the different approaches to maths – maths on its own and maths in science. We are unusual in covering both pure and applied maths in one qualification, for example, and in the comparatively limited range of maths on offer, with other countries offering other, more challenging maths qualifications alongside their A level equivalents. In maths then we have traditionally cut breadth versus depth differently in this country, with our focus more on breadth. And then finally in the sciences, we have traditionally put more emphasis than others on the mathematical content for each science, and we continue to do so in the reformed science A levels – and of course there will be a relationship between the science qualifications and the maths qualifications sitting alongside them, in each country.

Our international research findings have been fed into the work on the reform of A and AS levels, but they did not drive it – they were not the reason for reform. A levels are being reformed for two reasons: to update the content and to move from modular to linear assessments. Most subjects have not been reviewed or updated for about eight or ten years, and they are ripe for review – they are at the end of the usual shelf life of key qualifications and it is not unusual to be reviewing and updating them at this stage of the game.

The move to linear assessment is not uncontroversial – there are differing views. When we proposed the move, most of those responding to our consultation favoured the removal of January assessments. But as you know the biggest concern has been the decision of Government to decouple AS and A level. We at Ofqual take a neutral stance: decoupling is a matter for Government. Our job has been to be sure that it is delivered well, with good AS and A level qualifications on offer to schools.

Should any future Government wish to recouple, it can be done, albeit the timing of the election is awkward, as new decoupled A and AS levels will be in schools ready for first teaching in September 2015. The choice would be to do one of two things. Either let new A and AS levels run for two years while exam boards design coupled qualifications using the new content, or else leave current A and AS levels to run for two years while exam boards update them with new content. We appreciate this uncertainty is uncomfortable, but hopefully it is helpful to narrow the uncertainty for you, by explaining the two options and the likely timescales should Government decide to recouple A and AS levels.

Let me touch now on co-teachability. It is clear Government policy that new AS and A levels can be co-teachable. All of the AS and A levels that we at Ofqual have accredited so far are designed by exam boards to be co-teachable. As you are considering your curriculum offers you will no doubt look to the accredited specifications currently available, but even if you did not you can assume co-teachability. Exam boards are not obliged to produce co-teachable A and AS level specifications, but they are doing so universally – and that is no surprise, given that that is likely to be what you want should you be considering AS levels.

A level reform is now well underway, and being delivered in demanding timescales by exam boards. Subjects have been prioritised, with high volume and traditional subjects in the first tranche. Subject content has been reviewed in several ways, depending on the extent of change thought to be needed, and you will have the chance to hear from Isabel Nesbit shortly followed by Professor Mark Smith, both seasoned and experienced in the subject review arrangements.

From Ofqual’s perspective the arrangements have worked well. We have been able to provide technical advice, able to influence and shape and clarify and substantially improve the assessment objectives and able to consider, once new subject content is proposed, whether it: represents a sufficiently coherent programme of study; whether it is sufficiently clear and well expressed so that competing exam boards will produce sufficiently comparable qualifications; and whether it appears to be of suitable demand – so far as one can tell at that stage.

In considering subject content proposals we have in mind of course the aims of A and AS level reform. We are updating content and improving assessment arrangements. We are not setting out to make A and AS levels more demanding per se, or to set a different performance standard.

Let me talk now just briefly about three aspects of our work on assessment. Firstly we have required exam boards to set out in detail their assessment strategies in each subject, covering for example their approaches to domain sampling (making sure that enough of the curriculum is assessed) and to item design (e.g. the balance between long and short questions) and to mark schemes. Secondly, our accreditation process has been comprehensive, and delivered with a new tranche of experts – and some of our 650 experts may be in this room. Thirdly, the balance of exam and non-exam assessment, where we are seeking a balance that reflects the balance and nature of the subject content, and also to strike the right balance taking into account three competing considerations, competing tensions that you will be familiar with.

To explain, we expect A levels to produce a sufficiently reliable indicator of student performance, a reliable rank order enabling higher education and employers to rely on them for selection purposes. We also recognise their use and stated purpose in measuring and reporting on school and college achievements – that is, accountability, which, were it the only consideration, would lead us towards bullet proof assessment design. Then, last and by no means least, A level qualifications must embed the curriculum and be likely to deliver curriculum aims and a good and worthwhile experience for students.

The most difficult decisions, the most finely balanced decisions we have made here are in the individual sciences, where as many of you know, practical science skills will be assessed and reported on separately. We believe this to be the best way to reconcile the three competing tensions I have just spoken of, and I was heartened to see the results of an AQA teacher survey recently showing 89% of science teachers saying that the changes will lead them to undertake more practical work with students. We will be tracking how science A and AS levels are delivered in schools – not because we regulate schools – of course, we do not – but because we want to know that these qualifications are actually delivering curriculum aims sufficiently well, as well as meeting the other requirements just mentioned.

Let me make some reflections now in the time I have left.

People generally agree that it is right for HE to be more involved in determining subject content than has been the case in recent years, and we have seen that to work well. The consultations run by DfE have been helpful, indeed critical and we have seen the DfE adjust or rebalance content proposals in the light of consultation responses, and new subject content has been generally well received by the sector.

In the review we have taken the opportunity to limit, although not eradicate, the number of alternative routes through the qualifications – building on our international research findings. In some subjects the new content is exclusively core content; in others the core content is a noticeably higher proportion than it is at the moment.

The biggest subject content changes are in history, where we move from the study of one century to the study of two. I am reassured by the fact that in our international study we found no consensus as to what is history or agreement on how many eras one should study, or what is an era, for that matter. Instead, historians agreed on the value of studying history, and the skills to be developed and assessed in the subject, for example, critical thinking skills.

The changes in modern foreign languages content are significant as well, and reflect more closely the way the subjects are approached in higher education, with the study of language more clearly in a cultural setting.

The subject content in the individual sciences still includes relevant maths and indeed that maths is now more clearly specified. Of the three sciences, it is Chemistry that is presenting the biggest challenge for us and for exam boards. No specification is accredited yet, but rest assured the chemists amongst you. This is not because of any neglect or lack of application, but because we are maintaining a standard at Ofqual and we will not accredit Chemistry specs until they meet that standard. You would not expect anything less.

As expected, the most difficult subjects are maths and further maths, where there is more work to be done to be sure that the new content requirements, particularly those relating to problem solving are sufficiently well specified and then commonly understood by each exam board. And we want to be sure of course that the new A and AS levels sit sensibly alongside the new GCSE.

Finally, looking to the future, we are keeping to the timetable for reform, but not slavishly. It is the quality of the qualification and the educational outcomes that matter above all, and that is behind our advice to Government in relation to A level Maths.

Thank you. Thank you for listening.

Updates to this page

Published 26 November 2014