The case against AS

24 hours after A level results were released to pupils, so the dust begins to settle.  Maths overtakes English as the most popular A level (re-tweeted with glee by Liz Truss), A* is up, A is down, overall passes down for the first time since 1982, many girls did a lot of jumping, someone got 11 A levels at A*/A and said their time-management was poor.  There are probably some twins who got identical results, and an 8 year old who got an A level in Computer Science, but these stories must have passed me by, at least for one year.

The legacy of Gove is being celebrated by some and damned by others.  Entries for facilitating subjects (for the uninitiated, this means hard) are up at AS, A grades are down for the A level, a record number of students are likely to go to university.  But in fact, the changes are statistically pretty minor, and that is to be expected, because the only real change this year was that pupils were not able to take/re-take their AS levels in January.  They still had the opportunity to re-take AS modules at the end of their Upper Sixth, but they didn’t have the opportunity to take some AS modules four times, which was the case previously.  The true legacy of Gove may well be noticed in a year or two’s time, when the first cohort of pupils on linear courses receive their grades in 2016.

I don’t care for modularity.  I don’t think the introduction of AS has offered breadth.  I don’t think the AS enables pupils to decide which subjects they wish to take to full A level.  I don’t think exams at the end of the Lower Sixth help to focus or to motivate.  I don’t think AS exams enable pupils to bank marks with the long term goal of higher overall grades.  I think it is patronising to suggest that pupils cannot cope with linear courses and that the material needs to be boxed up bite-sized for them.  Tristram Hunt’s popular political statement to re-introduce AS (if elected) is anti-educational and a retrograde step.  In any case, Gove never ‘banned’ AS grades, he simply de-coupled them from A levels, following consultation with universities.

I experienced linear courses when I studied in the Sixth Form, and when I first become a teacher I taught linear A levels.  I taught though the introduction of modular courses in 2000, and the new re-vamped modular A levels in 2008.  I have taught the linear Cambridge Pre-U for the last 3 years.  I have taught in four different Schools.  I do not state a preference for linearity and then seek to justify; it is evidence that bring me to this point.  I do not think this is an exact science, and there are certainly some pupils for whom a modular approach is best.  Some subjects are perhaps more modular than others, and some do not suffer so much by the compartmentalisation of knowledge.  However, in a utilitarian world, linearity wins for me.

To make a case against AS, here’s a de-bunking of the commonly quoted reasons for keeping them:

Pupils need to bank marks

Pupils in their GCSE year are well capable of learning two or three years’ worth of material for terminal examinations.  In ten subjects.  Quite why they have become unable to cope with three (or four) subjects over two years is beyond me.  It is precisely those pupils who do not need to bank marks (the top academics) who end up doing so, and those pupils who should be banking the marks that end up sitting linear A levels anyway, given their need to re-take everything.

No pupil will be more linguistically developed at the end of the Lower Sixth, compared with that same pupil a year later.  No pupil will have a more advanced problem-solving ability.  Complex ideas need time to bed in, pupils need time to mature and adapt.  Starting a School at 13 means that each pupil will have around 150 weeks of build-up to their GCSEs.  Starting in the Sixth Form leaves you with just over 20 to get the AS syllabus completed.

The ‘bad day’

The likelihood of such a ‘bad day’ is directly proportional to how well prepared you are for an examination.  The likelihood of said bad day can be nigh on eliminated by being very well prepared indeed.  All Pre-U linear courses involve four assessment modules, one of which is usually a coursework assignment.  Even accepting the fact that a pupil might mess up one of the questions (or even a whole paper), there are still three further chances (one different days) to atone.

Pupils are focussed/motivated by the AS exams

This is a fairly lazy argument, offered by the sort of teacher who attempts to gain the attention of pupils by stating that the current topic is ‘popular with the examiners’.  ‘This is a question that often comes up’ might be used as a way to raise Lower Sixth Formers from their slumbers.  But these pupils should be motivated by the subject material, after all they have rejected over half their GCSE subjects to study your course in the Sixth Form.  I want my pupils to be interested in the work for its own sake, to build up knowledge, to gain an interest (and facility) in solving problems.  I don’t want them to feel that everything is building up to this examination, occurring just 25 School weeks after they started the course in the first place.

Options are cut off

I have no problem with pupils studying four subjects through the Lower Sixth, and then dropping one at the end of the year.  They just don’t have to take an AS in that subject.  I read an article in The Independent yesterday stating that without the AS exam, the pupils will not know which subject is their weakest, and which they should drop.  Surely after 30 weeks of study, any pupil can tell which subject they have struggled with the most/enjoy the least.  You can also still give them an internal exam (which might even be an AS past paper), just in case they couldn’t tell from the 200 lessons, numerous pieces of marked work, reports, feedback etc.  How many university courses require an extra AS, on top of three grades, when that could be made up with an EPQ anyway?  Some require four grades, and an extra AS wouldn’t count towards that anyway.  

I encourage pupils to make positive choices – this is a subject I am good at, this is a subject about which I want to learn more, this is a subject I wish to study for two years.  The presence of AS can lead to a more negative mindset – if you’re asking the question: what if I want to drop it after a year, there’s a good chance you shouldn’t be picking it in the first place.  If there’s a course call Literature in English, it’s best to pick it only if you like reading books.

The pupils have nothing to show for a year’s study

Learning is generally more fun when there’s no exam at the end of it.  If a pupil has studied Art, Economics, English or Physics for a year, they have gained plenty from that year.  The fact that they have no letter on a piece of paper to show for it does not make the year’s learning worthless.  The existance of necessary knowledge (that which appears on a syllabus) and useless knowledge (about which no questions will be asked) is a fallacy.  

AS and A2 papers are completely different

This seems to be a flaw in the chosen syllabus.  If all the easy ideas are crammed into the Lower Sixth, pupils may well gain a false idea of their progress within that subject.  Incorrect information is worse than no information at all.

And if results are still all-important, and trump everything else about the educational experience, it’s worth noting that where we have moved to linear assessment, results have improved.  In every subject.