The Relationship between AS and AL in 2015 – Some Important Issues

barbaraBarbara Bleiman, Co-Director of The English and Media Centre, clarifies the issues around the de-coupling of AS and AL.

The new AS and AL reforms are raising difficult questions about how best they should be implemented. Why? Because not only are different suites of subjects being reformed at different times, resulting in a muddling mix of the new and the old, but also because there is a misguided rearguard action trying to hang on to AS for everyone, within a new system that hasn’t been designed with this in mind. There may have been lots of arguments for sticking to the old system but they were lost. Now that the system has been changed, it simply doesn’t work to pretend that it hasn’t and carry on as before.

This blog tries to explain why not.

Mike Sewell, Cambridge Director of Admissions, has sent a letter to all schools in the country urging them to continue with AS. It’s been widely reported in the news, as in this article in the Telegraph.

Partly as a result of this letter, but also for other pragmatic reasons, a number of schools and colleges are now telling their English departments that a policy decision has been taken to routinely put all A Level students in for AS and well as A Level. But I wonder whether Sewell, other colleagues in universities and even members of Senior Management Teams in schools and colleges, fully understand that AS and AL are now two entirely separate qualifications, rather than one being the first half of the other? Whatever one thinks of the rights and wrongs of the change from the current AS and AL modular system, to a separate, linear system of two de-coupled qualifications, one has to recognize that simply arguing for everyone continuing to sit both is not a sensible approach. Resistance to the change is too late, unless the whole reform is abandoned. Making students to do both AS and AL in the new system will potentially distort the whole new linear structure, which hasn’t been designed with this in mind.

Here’s why.

AS is not a staging-post towards an AL any more. It’s stand-alone. In most cases the new specs have made their AS pretty much a sub-set of the AL, to allow students to be taught in mixed AS and AL classes if need be, but not with the intention that everyone should be entered for both. Students who do the AS have to be re-examined for the AL on the entire content of the AS. In many of the specifications for English, this content is re-configured at AL in relation to new pairings of texts, or is examined using different kinds of questioning (e.g. a single poetry text for AS might be paired with another text in a comparative essay for the AL). Students who do the AS and go on to the AL will get their result for AS and then find that it has no bearing on their AL. They may achieve in A in exams on four texts and then find that they have to be re-examined on those same texts for their AL – relearnt and revised for a different context in their AL. As you can imagine, they might wonder why this should be the case. The answer? Because a) it’s something university admissions officers have said schools should do, and b) because there are logistical issues for schools and colleges which, in the short term might make it easier for them to administer.

There are many, many reasons why a course that has been designed as a two-year linear course should be taught in that way, not least of all the chance to focus on the learning rather than constantly have to be doing external exams. If all students do an AS exam, there is all the time wasted in the current system in study leave and sitting exams and effectively teaching stops in May. In explaining the reforms, OFQUAL quotes the disruption of too many assessments as a key reason for change:

Too many assessments disrupt teaching
Multiple assessments throughout the year mean teachers have to spend too much time focusing on them (exam preparation or setting, monitoring and marking non-exam assessment), rather than moving through the material at a pace that suits their students.’
An Update on the Reforms Being Made to AS Qualifications and A Levels (April 2014 via Edexcel)

If most students just do the AL, (apart from those picking it up as a fourth subject, or deciding not to carry on and do an AL), teaching can be continuous across a two year course, building in skills across the whole of the course, teaching texts and non-examined components to suit the students and choosing texts on more sensible criteria than just on the basis of which are most co-teachable for an AS exam and a full A Level. Again, this was a key element of the reform:

AS qualifications and A Levels are ‘decoupled’
In March last year (2013), the Government decided that AS qualifications should be separated from A Levels, making them completely freestanding. At the moment, although AS qualifications are awarded in their own right, their assessments also contribute to students’ final A Level grades (with an intended weighting of 50 per cent).

Separating them means students will be able, if they want, to take new A Levels without also taking an AS in the subject (if students take an A Level after doing the AS, they’ll be reassessed on the material they’ve already covered).
An Update on the Reforms Being Made to AS Qualifications and A Levels (April 2014 via Edexcel)

There are also huge funding implications of putting everyone in for an AS exam that they don’t need to do. Has this been properly costed? If not, why not? Surely there are better uses of education funding than this.

We did the first of our courses for English teachers in mid-November about the changes to the 2015 curriculum and new specifications. Teachers were tearing their hair out when they realised the implications of entering all students for AS and how far this will distort the new AL courses. Some had already explained the issues to their SMT and managed to persuade them that AS should be taught in separate groups to AL. Others had decided to teach the majority AL but accommodate the few AS students in AL classes by choosing as co-teachable a specification as possible. (This was the scenario for which co-teachable specifications were originally intended.) But many were reporting that they’d been told they would have to enter everyone for AS on the way to AL, as if the old system were still in place.

One of the reasons behind this is a logistical, practical one but it may be less sensible than at first appears. If not all subjects are changing in 2015, the argument goes, then some students will still be doing the old-style AS subjects – they’ll still need study leave and it will be simpler to continue in this way for everyone. But many subjects are changing in the 2015 tranche of reforms – Art and Design, all of the Sciences, Business, Computer Science, Economics, the English suite of subjects, History, Psychology and Sociology. There could be a shorter study leave for the remaining subjects, or partial study leave, with the new ones continuing throughout. (Surely there are models for this, such as those used when January modules still existed.) The desire to keep everything the same will be de-railed by the fact that AS in the new specs and AS in the old don’t mean the same thing. It’s going to take an awful lot of explaining to students that their French or Geography AS will count as half their AL while their English AS counts for nothing!

It seems to us that there are two possible approaches to the new system that make better sense than putting everyone in for the AS even if they’re doing a full AL:
1. Separate groups for AL and AS.In this case (not always possible in schools or colleges because of staffing and timetabling), those who take the AS are only those who aren’t going on to do a full AL. The majority of AL students are able to follow the linear course that the AL has been designed to be, and benefit from all the flexibility of this.

2. Mixed groups, where a small number of students sit the AS, in among a larger number of AL students. This is called ‘co-teaching’. Many of the specs have been designed with co-teachability in mind, so that it should be possible to teach in these mixed groups and have a minor amount of tweaking to make it work for both. For instance, most, if not all, texts can be taught in common and when AS students are building up for their exams and doing revision, AL students can start on their non-examined work. Co-teaching does limit set text choice and does slightly constrain when components are taught but nevertheless, it is possible, while broadly offering AL students the benefits of a linear approach.

Whatever approach is taken, it seems important that senior managers understand the new system and are alerted to the ways in which it differs significantly from the old. We hope this blog might be helpful in clarifying the issues at stake.

You may be interested to know that The English and Media Centre is running several courses on the new AS and A Levels:

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 10.32.54Choosing and Planning for the New A Level Literature 2015. Most dates are full but there are still some spaces on Wednesday 21st January.

A Level Language & Literature – Introducing EMC’s New Specification with OCR: Why Choose it and How to Start to Teach It on Thursday 18th December

Hitting the Ground Running – Introducing the New A Level Language Specifications for 2015 on Friday 27th February


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