From gradings to subject choice, schools up and down the country are braced for new means of examining pupils – and here’s what you need to know

September 2015 sees the beginning of the most significant changes to school qualifications since the start of the century and by the completion of the reform process in September 2020 there will have been a profound effect on the numbers of subjects offered in schools and on universities’ assessment of potential applicants.

The changes to A levels, and the decoupling of the AS from the full A level, are the most noteworthy, with many schools expressing uncertainty over the impact of the reforms. One aspect of the change that is making it hard for schools to be clear on the effects is that half of the A levels being offered in September 2015 are unreformed – that is with the AS exam still contributing to the final A level grade, and this includes such major subjects as mathematics, modern foreign languages and religious studies/philosophy. However, the reformed A levels being offered from this September include Business, English, History and the three sciences. As a further development the assessment structures of A levels offered in Wales and Northern Ireland will not follow the English changes. In Northern Ireland revised A-levels will be introduced from September 2016 and the AS will remain part of the A-level, though the weighting will change with revised AS exams making a 40% contribution to the overall A-level grade. Welsh A-level reforms will follow a similar timetable to the English changes, though they will continue to retain an embedded AS qualification with the same weighting as the new Northern Irish ones. International A levels are remaining with existing integrated AS element.

What the changes to exams from 2015 really mean

Cambridge University is well used to judging candidates with traditionally linear exams

The attitude of universities will be another influence on schools’ final assessment decisions. Cambridge University has long placed great significance on AS performance in its application process and it continues to call for potential applicants to take AS level examinations in at least three, and preferably four, subjects from either reformed or unreformed A levels. It sees AS performance as a strong measure of an applicant’s academic progress. However, it should be remembered that Cambridge, as are all universities, is also well used to judging candidates with traditionally linear examinations such as the IB or Pre-U. In such cases it has tended to issue slightly higher offers given the lack of a post 16 indicator. Cambridge is concerned that the information available to admissions tutors about applicants’ recent academic progress is being reduced and makes the perceptive observation that students may make too conservative, or overly ambitious, choices for higher education based on GCSE results alone.

Many other universities have not placed such significance on AS performance; Oxford and most medical schools have relied on additional admissions tests such as the TSA or UKCAT, which are continuing.  All universities stress that those who do not have interim AS awards will not be disadvantaged and in reality ever since the introduction of Curriculum 2000 and AS exams, the three full A level subjects have always remained the most significant determinator in higher education applications. Students should reflect even more carefully after their GCSE results, seeking external advice if necessary, on their choice of A level subjects and be mindful of their future university ambitions selecting subjects they intend to take for two years.

There is considerable diversity amongst schools’ exam offerings this September, although independent schools are most likely to offer a three A level programme with an additional qualification such as the Extended Project, and many will continue to offer four AS exams with three subjects being continued to full A level. Evidence is also emerging of an increasing abandonment of A levels all together in a number of subjects. Uppingham prefers to offer Pre-Us in Physics and Chemistry rather than the reformed A level courses. Millfield’s history department is being joined by Wells Cathedral School and Downside by extending the Pre-U provision and Epsom College is moving to Pre-U English.

What the changes to exams from 2015 really mean

The likes of Downside will be extending their Pre-U provision

The insistence on broad co-teachability between the AS and A level exams in reformed subjects has permitted another element of change in the varying assessment regimes being run in schools and the number of external exams this September’s Lower Sixth will face in the summer of 2016. Several schools, such as the Perse and King’s Wimbledon, will deliver the 2015 reformed subjects in a linear fashion without any public exams until the summer of 2017, whilst still delivering the unreformed A levels in the established manner with AS exams in the summer of 2016. Others, such as Malvern and Wycombe Abbey, will use the opportunity to offer an externally marked rehearsal exam by asking their pupils to take AS exams at the end of the Lower Sixth in 2016 in reformed as well as unreformed subjects. The most common approach appears to be that of the Rugby, Haileybury and St Albans group of public schools in offering AS exams in only unreformed subjects in 2016 and none after 2017, despite Cambridge’s ‘request’.

The reality of A level change is the examinations will not be intrinsically harder other than the return to a linear approach. This is not the case with GCSE changes, which also begin this autumn with the new English and maths syllabi to be followed by 20 other subjects in 2016 and the remainder in 2017. These will be harder examinations than the current ones with a consciously greater emphasis on extended writing, spelling and grammar. Assessment will be by terminal examination with the ending of the modular options taken by some schools currently. Coursework or controlled assessments are largely being abolished and a new nine point numerical grading scale from 1 (low) to 9 (high) will replace the present A* to G scale. There will be more differentiation at the top end and less at the bottom.

What the changes to exams from 2015 really mean

Rugby will be offering AS exams in only unreformed subjects in 2016 and none after 2017

Some other forms of assessment will be used for essential subject-specific skills that cannot be assessed by written examination, such as English language speaking skills. One awarding body has privately predicted ‘a quantum leap’ in difficulty especially in mathematics and that attainment ‘will plummet’ in some subjects with a 30 to 40% drop in candidates securing a pass. However, these changes should be seen in the context that in fact may schools have already been abandoning GCSEs in favour of IGCSEs for many years. Although the maintained sector’s freedom of action is limited given the insistence on the requirements of the English Baccalaureate that excludes IGCSEs, which such schools are obliged to follow. It is also predicted that the number of GCSEs studied is also likely to become smaller than the common ten or so taken in schools presently.

The differences between the UK countries will be even more marked than at A level with Northern Ireland’s revised GCSEs not being introduced until 2017 and the changes will largely focus on content. In Wales revised GCSEs will be introduced in a similar manner to the English ones beginning in September 2015. However, they will retain the existing A* to G grading scale and there will be in new mathematics numeracy qualification to be studied alongside mathematics GCSE.

As with all educational changes a common pattern will emerge once these reforms are fully implemented. There will, however, be a large diversity of exam approaches across the country for the next few years adding another element to school choice.

Written by Paul Kelly, Head of Schools and Higher Education Placement at Gabbitas Education Consultants; gabbitas.co.uk