The A level reform process
Ofqual published a review of A level ‘fitness for purpose’ (April 2012) and concluded that: ‘Overall, the A level system works well for many students and most universities. The main issues concern high achievers at A level, the universities these students apply to and certain subjects’.
Ofqual reviewed the content criteria for A level geography in force at the time and moved to ‘strengthen’ A level qualifications by removing January exams with effect from September 2013. The GA responded to a consultation by Ofqual.
A review of A level subjects was led by Professor Mark Smith to assess the degree of reform needed for a number of subjects. The GA submitted its views to this process via focus group discussions with awarding organisations, and through this letter to the AO chief executives: Smith review of A level subject criteria – GA response.
The DfE then rapidly drafted proposed changes to A level geography, for first teaching in 2015. The GA responded to these proposals in December 2013.
In its response, the GA:
- warmly welcomed the attempt to build features such a coherent content ‘core’, balance between physical and human geography, increased emphasis on fieldwork and a non-exam approach to fieldwork assessment into the revised criteria
- viewed the content proposal document from DfE as poorly constructed and worded, with the result that at least some of the above intentions would not be achieved. We made a series of recommendations to set out the required knowledge, understanding and skills in a clear fashion, including building qualitative and quantitative skills into the main body of the document and right across each specification
- expressed concern that the overall level of demand, expressed through the aims and objectives and particularly the subject content sub-section, did not provide for progression from GCSE geography. We made a series of recommended changes to the content which would address this concern.
Ofqual proposed new assessment objectives for geography A level and proposed to de-couple AS from A level. The GA responded to these ideas in January 2014: Ofqual assessment and regulatory consultation - GA response.
- opposed the decoupling of AS and A level, principally on the grounds that this will undermine curriculum breadth and choice for students. We noted that geography is one of the best ‘retainers’ of students from AS and that the AS experience helps to recruit many students
- was delighted that Ofqual reversed earlier statements and acknowledged that fieldwork CAN be assessed reliably without depending on terminal examination questions. We agreed that allocating 20% of marks at A level is an appropriate weighting, given the importance of fieldwork investigation to the subject at this level, and pointed out that AS students (as well as those at GCSE) must be given opportunities to analyse fieldwork data and experiences outside the artificial environment of a traditional terminal examination
- supported the principle that A level assessment objectives be given a narrower range of weighting, but recommended that the proposed AOs be rewritten to signal an appropriate level of demand and that performance descriptors be produced as a matter of urgency.
Thankfully, the proposed subject content criteria and assessment objectives were rejected following this public consultation exercise. The Secretary of State for Education asked for the launch of a new geography A level to be postponed until 2016, later than the original timetable of September 2015 for A level geography.
Between February and July 2014 a geography panel of the A level Content Advisory Board (ALCAB) designed an entirely new set of content proposals. The panel was made up mostly of academic geographers but the Secretary of State insisted it included representatives from the Geographical Association. The panel was asked to create criteria for A level geography which would be fit for purpose and support progression to higher education. The geography panel’s final report can be found here.
At the same time, Ofqual consulted on the way in which content for A levels should in future be devised – and whether this should be determined by awarding organisations, academics or government. The GA had its say on these matters (July 2014).
Following the ALCAB geography panel report, the DfE and Ofqual consulted again on content criteria (consultation on new A level geography content launched) and assessment regulations (consultation on new A level geography assessment criteria) respectively. The GA produced two position statements in response to both the DfE consultation on the reform of geography A and As level subject content and the Ofqual consultation on reform of A and AS level assessment.
In December, the DFE reported on the outcomes of its latest consultation (DfE report on the consultation for geography AS and A level) and published the final A level content criteria. We were pleased to note that, following the concerns raised by the GA and by teachers, the total amount of content (themes and skills) was trimmed in the final version, reducing the risk of an overloaded curriculum which teachers would struggle to teach. The final content requirements were more manageable and achieved a better balance between core and non-core content.
During the same month, the chair of ALCAB wrote to the Secretary of State explaining the changes which had been recommended (ALCAB letter to the Secretary of State explaining changes and Ofqual published the final A level assessment objectives (new geography A level assessment objectives).
In January, the GA published a useful summary of the core content from 2016.
Ofqual began the process to decide on the detailed regulations for assessing the new A level. For example, it proposed that only awarding organisations should mark the new independent investigation Once again, the GA responded, with the result that Ofqual permitted either awarding organisations or teachers to undertake this marking.
The GA continued to advise awarding organisations on the detailed content of specifications, leading up to the publication of approved specifications. We kept our members informed of all of the above developments through our website and magazine.
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