An update from Ofqual on A level reform

A speech given to the Association of Colleges' A level reform conference by Ofqual's Phil Beach.

See the slides from this speech.


(Slide 1)

I begin my presentation on A level reform by reflecting that these continue to represent the most popular Key Stage 5 qualifications and 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’s more, our research showed that, when compared to equivalent qualifications in other countries, A levels compare well, albeit we did find differences. 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.

Our international research findings informed 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.

Responsibilities for reform

(Slide 2)

This slide gives an overview of the reform process and where responsibilities for reform sit. Clearly, government decides the overall policy on qualifications and the arrangements for content and curriculum development. At Ofqual, we are responsible for securing the overall standards in qualifications. We set the criteria for the design of qualifications and check that these rules are met through accreditation; we set rules for exam board performance and monitor this; and we oversee the awarding of general qualifications to ensure standards are maintained consistently and fairly. Last but no means least, the exam boards design and deliver qualifications.

Within these reforms, we recognise that the move to linear assessment is not uncontroversial. When we proposed the move, most of those responding to our consultation favoured the removal of January assessments but there was concern about the decision of Government to decouple AS and A level. We at Ofqual take a neutral stance: decoupling remains 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. It does of course also raise the issue of the co-teachability of AS and A levels. Exam boards are not obliged to produce co-teachable A and AS level specifications, but they are doing so universally. Perhaps no surprise, given that this is likely to be what you want should you be considering AS levels. All of the AS and A levels that we at Ofqual have accredited so far are designed by exam boards to be co-teachable

Ofqual’s reform decisions

(Slide 3)

Our reform work generated some key decisions that define the objectives for A and AS level. These qualifications should define and assess achievement of the knowledge, skills and understanding which will be needed by students planning to progress to undergraduate study at a UK higher education establishment particularly (but not only) in the same subject area. They also need to provide a strong foundation for further academic and vocational study and, of course, for employment.

What will reformed A levels look like?

(Slide 4)

So what will reformed A levels look like? As I have said, the qualifications will be linear, with exams at the end of the course. And assessment will be by examination where possible. We will only use other forms of assessment where necessary to assess essential subject skills. It is worth looking at assessment in a bit more detail.

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); to item design (in other words 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 – around 650 experts. Thirdly, we have considered carefully the balance of exam and non-exam assessment which needs to reflect the nature of the subject content, and to strike the right balance between the competing demands of: producing a reliable indicator of student performance; their use and stated purpose in measuring and reporting on school and college achievements – that is, accountability; and the need to embed the curriculum and be likely to deliver curriculum aims and a good and worthwhile experience for students.

Here, you will know that there has been considerable discussion on the decisions we have made over the individual sciences, where 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 we have decided, following consultation, to adopt written assessment of practical science knowledge at A level. There is strong evidence to suggest that well-written questions can appropriately test candidates’ knowledge of scientific experimentation. We have proposed a similar approach for GCSE science, on which our consultation closed last week. I would want to provide some context to our decisions here, and describe the aims of our reformed assessment programme for A level science.

We will increase the number of practicals students conduct. Currently, A level students do six practicals per science subject over two years. Our reformed A level will require a minimum of twelve per subject. So, rather than removing science practicals from A levels we are increasing markedly this most important aspect of the curriculum.

But it is not just about quantity – quality is clearly important too. So we will improve the quality of the practicals students are doing. Controlled assessment can understandably lead teachers towards a focus on a narrow range of practicals. Equally importantly, it is not a proper experiment if the pressure of assessment means that there is no room for error or learning from mistakes. Not only is going through the motions dull, it also constrains real experimentation and learning. Under our planned reforms there will be less pressure to complete each practical in a set time and under exam conditions. They will be much less artificial. Because there is less time pressure and students are not penalised for ‘getting the wrong results’ both teachers and pupils will find it an altogether more worthwhile experience.

And, Ofqual wants exams to be fair. It is not possible for an exam to be fair if 25% of the marks are awarded by the teacher observing their own students’ practical work. And it is just not possible for exam boards to supervise the marking of these practicals given the numbers of students involved. We have proposed at GCSE, and adopted at A level, the principle that the only element of practical work that has to be assessed by the teacher is the student’s ability to select the right equipment, use the equipment sensibly, and log the results intelligently – essential technical skills. The results and meaning of the experiment will not be assessed by the teacher – they will be assessed in the written exam and at A level will be worth 15% of the marks.

We have received enormous support from the teaching community for our proposals. They recognise the incentives they face and are concerned by the impacts they see. Some in the science world worry that we are ‘ending science practicals’ or engaging in a ‘big experiment’. I hope you will see that this could not be further from the truth.

Others say that removing controlled assessment will lead teachers, under pressure of time and budgets, to simply drop practicals altogether. We have introduced several precautions in our A level planning to ensure this does not happen. These include offering a separate practical grade and requiring students to keep a logbook of their practical work, to be made available to the exam board on request. Teachers are delighted with this idea. And also by requiring schools to sign a form confirming to their exam board that each student has completed the practical activities, has used the required apparatus and developed the required techniques.

On grading, we will retain the current system, that is to say the A* to E and (U) classifications, while the levels of demand associated with the qualifications will remain similar to current A levels.

A level reform timetable

(Slide 5)

A level reform is now well underway, and being delivered to demanding timescales by exam boards. Subjects have been prioritised, with high volume and traditional subjects in the first tranche for first teaching in 2015. Subject content has been reviewed in several ways, depending on the extent of change thought to be needed. From Ofqual’s perspective the arrangements have worked well. We have been able to provide technical advice, to influence and shape and clarify and substantially improve the assessment objectives and to consider, once new subject content is proposed, whether it represents a sufficiently coherent programme of study. That is 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.

For 2015 subjects, perhaps 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.

We have also concentrated on ensuring that 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 although we have now accredited some specifications. This slower progress 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.

For 2016 subjects, 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.

And for 2017, you will see that the slide reflects the decision to delay first teaching of A level mathematics and further mathematics. The delay in introducing revised mathematics and further mathematics s reflects that changes to this subject area are greater than most other subjects and we are determined to use the time we have between now and first teaching to ensure that the aims of A level reforms that I descried earlier are met.

You may be interested to note that we will convene an A level Mathematics Working Group to inform our thinking at Ofqual. The intent is for a small group of experts to provide an additional source of evidence to support us in providing clear guidance and regulation in respect of A level mathematics and further mathematics prior to formal consultation. The establishment of the working group reflects our strong desire to ensure that we start our consultation process with a shared understanding of how the changes being made in A level mathematics are interpreted by examination boards. Participants will include representatives of exam boards and mathematics associations as well as practising teachers.

We have also consulted on and are considering how content for any remaining subjects, which will be taught from September 2017, should be developed and on the expectations for subjects to continue as A levels (and of course GCSE). We need to bring those subjects not already reformed for first teaching in 2015 or 2016 in line with those that have been reformed. As a matter of principle, reformed AS and/or A level qualifications should not run alongside unreformed versions for any longer than necessary. We consulted on a number of principles to determine whether a subject could be offered as a reformed AS or A level. In particular we said that: individual subjects should be similar in overall demand with a robust content assessment basis; and that there shouldn’t be any significant overlap between subjects

Find out more

(Slide 6)

I hope you have found the last 30 minutes helpful and informative, but there is of course only so much I can cover in the time available. In addition to your usual contacts with the exam boards, I would also encourage you to use the contacts displayed here to find out more about the accredited qualifications and keep abreast of developments.

Thank you for your time this morning.

Published 13 February 2015