Gove and linear A-levels

Our beloved Education Secretary continues with his plan to make everything as it was when he was at school.

Though I doubt it’ll be consistently retro throughout – when I went to university in the eighties, we had full maintenance grants that you could actually live on, and no fees… perhaps he’s actually aiming at an even earlier period before hoi polloi could hope to aspire to a higher education?

In his letter to the Head of Ofqual, Gove commits to the idea of full linear A-levels (i.e. assessment only at the end of two years) with AS qualifications not contributing to them. One wonders, then, why the extensive (and no doubt, expensive) A-level consultation happened, since the results of that (summarised simply here by AQA and available in more depth here from Ofqual) indicate clearly that the consensus was to keep the existing structure of AS contributing to A2.  I am not surprised that Gove decided to make his own mind up independent of what everyone else thinks – after all, he does that all the time – but it really is adding insult to injury to give us the initial impression our views might possibly count.

About a year ago, I posted on the subject of modular exams, and discussed at some length the down sides of the modular system. I’ve certainly welcomed the demodularisation of GCSEs, and the removal from next year of the January A-level examinations (though the short notice given for that was unfair and unreasonable, since teachers have had to replan their courses after they’d started).   But I think this is a step too far.

While I am all in favour of giving time for in-depth learning, and encouraging a holistic, linked-up approach to the subject, and many of the other objectives promoted by a linear course, the plans don’t take into account human nature. There are plenty of kids who get away with a bit of last minute cramming for their GCSEs. The same kids, typically, do not realise that A-level doesn’t work like that, and at the moment, the AS provides an extremely useful reality check, so they can get the proverbial kick up the backside, and sort themselves out for the actual A-level.  Internal exams, unfortunately, do not have the same effect – they just think it’s Sir or Miss going on again, and “I’ll work hard for the real thing”.

“But things used to be linear” you may say!  Well yes, they did, but (a) a number of people did exactly what I described back then (including a couple of my immediate friends), and (b) far fewer people did A-levels then; leaving school at 16 was relatively common, so to stay you had to be more focused and motivated than is typical now.  No, I don’t want to design everything for the lowest common denominator, and of course students should have self-discipline, will-power and listen to advice. But these are not adults yet – we should have a system that lets them learn from experience.

I also wonder whether universities will be demodularising? My degree course had (and still has) final exams at the end of three years (4 three-hour papers in 2 days), on which your classification depended. But I do not think that is common elsewhere. It’s a little odd to retain modular assessment only at the stage when those studying are (presumably) motivated adults.  University assessment has a bit of a charmed life anyway though – there’s endless discussion of comparability between GCSE and A-level exam boards, but almost none of comparability (or rather the almost complete lack of it) between “similar” degree courses at different universities. (Sshhh – don’t tell Mr Gove!)

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2 Responses to Gove and linear A-levels

  1. Jesse Owen says:

    My degree was modular (I was so tempted to type modularised – but I’m told that’s not a word by the spell checker!). I can understand why a linear model might be useful in a degree but I think there’s another side to the coin.

    The beauty of a modular program (for some subjects at least) at university level is that it can allow you to change your degree if you decide after completing a couple of modules that it’s not the right subject for you. On our course we had someone switch from another course and the modular system allows for it – I guess it also makes it easier to pick up a degree in a similar subject at another institution without having to study the same things all over again.

    Personally, I think universities could go a step further and offer something similar to the OU’s open degree – for those who might not know what degree they want and want to experience a bit of all the subjects they enjoy.

    Getting back to your original point – I agree that an A level building onto an AS level is a good thing – it happened the year before I started mine! And a less modular structure could be good in some subjects where the harder concepts rely on having a good grasp of the foundations.

    P.S Sorry this went on longer than planned (and yes I still read all your posts!)

    • teacherposts says:

      Glad you’re still reading Jesse!

      I agree that modular degrees do have some advantages – though I knew people who did that sort of switch (eg Maths to Economics, or Maths to Law) without that structure – depends on the university I guess. I’m sure a modular system facilitates credit transfer between institutions, as you say.

      A number of institutions do offer things not too far from the Open degree – one of my pupils is going to study something very much like that (it’s got options including Law, English, Computer Science, Chemistry, Anthropology…). Some overseas institutions do too – for example Maastricht offer a “Liberal Arts and Sciences” degree. But they aren’t at all well known I agree. As far as I can see, the OU would like to discourage the Open these days too, unfortunately – it doesn’t fit so well in their nice tidy “qualifications” structure – but it’s still incredibly popular, and long may it remain so.

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