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Karen Cornick: "Many students conclude they are 'rubbish' at a subject if they receive disappointing grades for the AS exam"

To de-couple or not to de-couple?

Karen Cornick, Principal of North Somerset Enterprise and Technology College, says that is the question

Posted by Stephanie Broad | November 04, 2015 | Teaching

The new academic year dawns with a significant shake-up in exams for providers of sixth-form education, giving pause for thought to many in the sector.

As a result of the Government’s new scheme to replace the current AS/A2 system, schools and academies across England and Wales must decide whether to continue offering a curriculum with AS exams for year 12 or revert to a single A level exam in the summer of year 13, as was the case until 2000.

There has been some interesting discussion around what the media has been calling “…this uneven and confusing wave of A level exam changes” because the period when candidates will take new A levels in some subjects and old A levels in other subjects won’t be over until summer 2019.

A survey by UCAS of 500 secondaries revealed many were unsure how to respond to the changes – should they choose to de-couple the exams or not? But at the Principal of North Somerset Enterprise and Technology College (NSETC) we are excited about the opportunity the linear regime offers our students.

Admittedly, we are a small academy with around 100 A level students on roll, which means the changes are easier to execute quickly than for a larger institution. However, the choice seems clear: there are significant advantages to our sixth-formers in abandoning externally assessed exams at the end of year 12. Most importantly, we will regain almost half a term’s worth of teaching time, which can be invested in the A level curriculum.

We can teach curriculum content right through to the end of the summer term, giving students far greater immersion in their chosen subjects, with no time wasted prepping for external exams. In my view this is an enormous bonus both for teaching staff and students.

Since AS exams were introduced in 2000, work on new content has given way after the Easter break in year 12 to AS revision, with study leave starting at the end of May and formal teaching of the A2 syllabus not resumed until September.  

The year 12 post-exam period has generally been devoted to background preparation for A2 because motivating students has been challenging pending publication of their AS results. It’s hard to throw yourself into a subject you suspect you may be dropping.

Many students conclude they are ‘rubbish’ at a subject if they receive disappointing grades for the AS exam, regardless of how well they were performing during year 12.  They write themselves off (and we collaborate in this), when in reality, many simply need more time to consolidate their understanding.

Some independent schools have already moved their core A level courses over to the Cambridge Pre-U, a linear course, and many never entered their students for AS exams. The new linear A levels offer 16 year-olds a level playing field. 

At NSETC we are just entering our second year of operation, with all the challenges that entails. We are fortunate to be a member of Inspirational Futures Trust - a new multi-academy trust established to raise aspirations and offer inclusive learning at all levels - and to benefit from the backing of Weston College (graded Ofsted Outstanding and also named as TES’s ‘College of the Year’ and ‘Overall FE Provider of the Year’ for 2015).

As the only school in England to be built within an Enterprise Zone we are part of a wider development which focuses on developing STEM training, expertise and employment within North Somerset.

I think the more focused linear path will suit students who come to us. Relinquishing AS exams won’t deprive them of the opportunity to evaluate their progress in year 12: we will examine them internally, feedback on their strengths and weaknesses, and then resume studying content. 

Choosing three A levels from the start means students will need to adapt to a culture where endless re-takes aren’t part of the landscape, but surely three A levels also makes financial sense at a time when all post 16 sectors are under pressure?

A colleague referred to the hybrid system as a case of “the assessment tail wagging the curriculum dog,” which sums it up perfectly to me. We’re ready to move on.    

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