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Changes to GCSE and A Levels: What it means

Posted on: 15 Aug 2017 by Headteacher

As the first exam results are about to be announced following the reforms to GCSE and A Level examinations, Principal of Ealing Independent College, Dr Ian Moores, explains what the changes mean and why they are a welcome change.

What are the changes to A-Levels and what do they mean for students?

The A-Level programme has moved from a modular to a linear system, and has been designed in this way so that students approach and learn their subjects more holistically and in their entirety. The change means that an A-Level qualification is examined at the end of the course, usually after two years’ study, and the AS qualification no longer counts towards the final A-Level grade. If a student wishes to take an AS qualification in the first year of sixth form study, this will be a stand-alone qualification on any UCAS form or CV. It is worth noting that universities appear to place less emphasis on the new AS qualification than under the old system, as it assumes fewer than half of the UCAS points for a full A-Level.

Whilst the changes to the A-Level programme means that students can no longer retake individual units of their A-Level to boost the overall grade, it does allow students to appreciate their subject as a whole. As a small College we have been able to fully adapt our teaching and approach to ensure that both our two year and Intensive Year A Level students develop a complete understanding for the subject in its entirety and walk into the examination room just as confident and prepared as ever. 

What do you, as the Principal of a leading West London College, think about the A-Level reform?

The changes are welcome in my view and long overdue. At A-Level, students should be able to appreciate the subject as a whole and not regard it as being made up of discrete, separate parts. The new system will encourage them to see the links between different areas of the course and consequently their understanding of the material will be bolstered.

It is also worth noting that the former modular system didn’t really reward students for scoring well on the more demanding A2 part of the A-Level (the second year of A-level) apart from the introduction of the A* grade, which was introduced relatively recently. Students could score highly on the much easier AS units and then only need to score a low B grade on the more demanding A2 papers and still score an A grade overall for the full A-Level. Consequently the ability range of students getting an A at A-level was quite broad.

What did you do to ensure that students in Year 13 were fully prepared for the new examinations in June this year?

The new examination system has no doubt placed more demand on our teachers, and they have had to be more innovative in their teaching to ensure that the entire subject matter is understood and seen as a whole. This last year it has been imperative that teachers revisit AS concepts and ensure that important links are made, and more demanding assigments have been set to ensure students are well prepared for the new examinations papers. Students have been expected to work harder and improve their independent study skills. 

What are the changes to GCSE and what do they mean for students?

With the A-Level reform now almost fully implemented, inevitably the GCSE programme has also had to be reviewed. Similar to the A-Level changes, the reform has meant less emphasis on coursework and greater emphasis on the terminal written papers. The first subjects to have the changes introduced were English Language, English Literature and Maths with examination results communicated in a new numeric grading system on 24 August 2017. The new numeric grading system is set from 1 to 9, where grade 9 is the highest. This equates to A** at an even higher standard than the current A*, and a grade 8 is the equivalent to the old A*. Furthermore, a grade 5 is then approximately equivalent to the old C grade, and a grade 4 will almost certainly not be viewed as a minimum GCSE pass. I would say that students wishing to study on a highly competitive course at a top university will need to achieve either a grade 8 or 9 in a broad spectrum of GCSE subjects.

Why do you think the Department of Education introduced these changes to GCSE and A-Level? 

There is no doubt that the Government and hence the examination boards are responding to grade inflation in our examination systems over the past 20 years. Universities have found that many students, although holding good grades at A-Level and GCSE, are not well prepared for the academic demands of university. They are hoping that the new GCSE and A-Level programmes will address this. As mentioned earlier, I believe the changes both to GCSE and A-Level to be reasonable ones that students will benefit from in the long run. 

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