Teachers demand an end to bite-size A-level exams in bid to stop rampant resits and grade inflation


Education Secretary Michael Gove has given the go-ahead for wide reforms of A-levels

Teenagers could once again sit traditional  A-levels with grades resting solely on final exams, it emerged yesterday.

The change is being considered because ‘bite-size’ courses have triggered rampant resitting and grade inflation.

A hard-hitting report by exam watchdogs has revealed that first-year university students have ‘shallower’ knowledge than 15 years ago despite steeply rising A-level grades.

It uncovered widespread concern among university academics and teachers that sixth-formers have bumped up their grades through repeatedly resitting parts of their courses.

Labour’s controversial reforms to A-levels in 2000 split the courses into short modules, each with their own exams that could be retaken an unlimited number of times.

But the report by the watchdog Ofqual contains calls from universities and schools for the changes to be reversed and for grades to be decided solely by final exams at the end of two years.

The findings follow the revelation that Education Secretary Michael Gove will relinquish his department’s control over setting A-levels and hand it back to universities, ending  30 years of the state’s involvement in running the exams.

Academics will be given a key role in deciding subject content and the format of assessment in an attempt to protect A-levels against political meddling that has dented public faith in the exams.

Ofqual’s report found that resits were perceived to have taken ‘a slice of prestige from the A-level’ because students are able to ‘get over the finishing line’ by repeatedly retaking modules.

‘Teachers in particular said that A-level students approach examinations with the expectation that they will always get a second chance,’ the report says. ‘While this may relax some, interviewees thought it was detrimental overall because this “isn’t how life works”.’

The report added: ‘An increase in the number of students achieving higher grades was felt by some teachers and higher education sector staff partly to be a consequence of resitting to improve grades.’

The move by the government is an attempt to restore credibility to A-levels, which have come under heavy criticism

It said grade inflation had made it harder for admissions staff to identify the brightest students and  concluded: ‘A-level pass mark data shows that students increasingly achieved better A-level grades between 1996 and 2010.

‘Higher education institutions do not report a comparative increase in the abilities of first year undergraduates, despite the rise in the number of first class degrees over the same time period.

‘If anything, students’ theoretical subject knowledge was said to have grown broader but shallower.’

It said that universities were increasingly forced to run remedial classes to correct ‘deficiencies’ in basic academic skills.

Ofqual’s study, based on interviews with academics and teachers, contained calls for a reduction in the number of modules and potentially the scrapping of AS-levels, introduced as a stepping-stone to the full A-level.

The findings came as the Russell Group of elite universities hinted it would support changes to A-levels that reduce or remove the number of modular exams. Speaking on BBC’s Newsnight, Dr Wendy Piatt, the group’s director-general, said  it had ‘several concerns’ about A-levels – including ‘the fact that  students can learn in chunks of knowledge, then be tested on that little chunk, and then learn to forget it’.

‘And then they can resit that chunk if they fail it,’ she added.

But in a blow to ministers, she also said: ‘We don’t actually have much time and resources spare to spend a lot of time in reforming A-levels.’

And some teachers have spoken out against scrapping the system of modular exams.

Speaking at the ATL annual conference in Manchester, Max Nielsen, a senior examiner in German from West Sussex, said that if students do not sit AS-levels ‘there’s a danger that you’re a complete failure’ at the end of the two-year course, with nothing to show for it.

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