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A Levels – The case for the modular approach in Wales

Posted: 1st June 2020

Principal, Gareth Collier, makes the case for the module approach for A Level examinations in Wales.

GCE A Levels have been in existence since 1949 (first examined in 1951), and represent the pinnacle of secondary academic achievement in British education. Often referred to as ‘the gold standard’, they are respected worldwide for their academic rigour, reliability and integrity. They have evolved in terms of the number of subjects offered, number of examination boards offering the awards, grading criteria and in the format of assessment. This evolution has led to much debate including, amongst other things, whether breadth of study is as important as depth of study; whether widening participation in post 16 education was at the expense of academic challenge and whether grade inflation is due to better teaching and learning or the weakening of academic standards.

The changes brought about as a result of the ‘Curriculum 2000’ report which heralded the onset of modular A Levels in earnest, have now been largely reversed by the A Level reforms of 2015-2017, championed by the conservative government of David Cameron and driven through by Michael Gove. In brief, this reform was designed to: decouple the AS modular examinations from the full A Level; return to a linear examination at the end of the course; increase the emphasis on a knowledge based curriculum influenced by university requirements and return to assessment based mainly on formal examination with other forms of assessment used only when absolutely necessary to test a particular skillset.

However, the devolution of certain powers to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies has meant that the implementation of education reform is now the remit of separate bodies outside the UK Government based in London. Whilst Scotland has long ploughed its own furrow in terms of education, Wales and Northern Ireland have traditionally remained parallel with England, but are now at odds with the provision. Consequently, Wales and Northern Ireland have not followed suit in terms of the full implementation of the Gove A Level reforms and still continue to offer modular A Levels, whereby the AS examination traditionally sat at the end of the first year of study counts towards 40% of the final A Level. This difference now leads to the often-asked question, “so what is best, modular or linear A Levels?”.

For parents able to entertain the idea of independent education both from the UK and internationally, this is a perfectly valid question when seeking to make the most of every opportunity in providing the best possible education for their children. There are arguments both ‘for’ and ‘against’ on both sides and the discovery of the best path is fraught with opinion and anecdote. However, it is important that the case for modular A Levels be reiterated in the rush to linear courses, if we are not to ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’ whilst making significant changes to education practice.

Universities, who have been involved in influencing the content of the new reformed A Levels are highly opinionated on the modular versus linear debate. Cambridge University came out particularly strongly on the modular side of the argument saying that externally assessed AS examinations give a much more reliable basis on which to make offers. GCSE grades are important but are taken a whole year earlier in a student’s journey to academic maturity and are rarely taken by many outside the UK. The AS modular examinations (retained also for international A Level specifications) are a vital tool for them in predicting which students would be best served by their institution. Oxford University on the other hand played down the influence of AS stating that they look at a much broader range of criteria when making offers, including GCSE performance, specially designed entrance tests and the interviews themselves. For top universities based outside the UK, such as Hong Kong University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the AS examinations provided an even greater and more important assurance of academic quality than achievement at GCSE (or iGCSE) could provide.

Indisputably, for academically strong students who perform well at AS level, with high UMS scores, the job of university admissions staff is made a little easier. In addition, the student can be confident that they can speak with authority at interview knowing that they have grasped the A Level material and have demonstrated their suitability for further, higher study. There is no questioning the fact that they must also display their prowess in admissions tests and at interview, but these are made easier knowing that the AS achievement is good.

Preparing students for a ‘high stakes’ examination at the end of their two year A Level programme is made considerably easier by undertaking a similar ‘high stakes’ examination in the AS examinations at the end of the first year. Coupled with a regular and integrated approach to assessment by examination throughout the course, students are prepared to perform and the anxieties surrounding a single ‘winner takes all’ examination after two years are reduced. I am sure that this is something, which will be monitored and reported on as the English linear approach matures. However, the rise in mental health and wellbeing issues in students more recently, and the anxieties surrounding a lack of confidence in academic performance are reduced in the modular system. The reassurance provided by the objective evidence of modular AS achievement goes a long way to boosting confidence and is all the more important with results arriving immediately before the completion of the all important UCAS application submission.

The short-term goals set by modular examination are manageable and motivating and the assessment of a broader range of knowledge, understanding and application, provided by more examinations provides an encouragement to work hard and make for a better foundation for higher study.

Only time will tell whether modular or linear will be seen as the way forward for A Level study, or whether there is space in provision for both to exist. What is certain is that we are unlikely to have seen the end of change to our ‘gold standard’. Given that there have been at least five reforms, some minor, some major since the inception of A Levels in 1951, each declaring itself better than the last and some reversing trends of the previous decade, there is likely to be more evolution and possibly some revolution before we get too settled into this new phase. What can be relied upon, however, is that whatever the system and whatever the perceived advantages and disadvantages, teachers will continue to deliver in the very best way possible for the students in their charge and because of this, the British A Level system will remain a respected and valid endpoint for secondary education.

Situated in Wales, Cardiff Sixth Form College is subject to the modular approach to A Level delivery and examination and, the process is embedded deeply in our teaching and learning. We have adapted our provision to deliver high level academic achievement, a broad skills based programme and students who are independent learners as well as achievers of excellence in A Levels.

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