Reforms are now coming through the A-level sciences. Those who take their A-level exams in 2017 will have studied the new specifications, have been assessed in new ways, and, in effect, have a new qualification.
The first major change to A-levels in England is a return to having all exams at the end of the course – three papers of a total of six hours. There will no longer be modules on specific topics, nor will AS-level count towards a final A-level.
We would therefore expect that fewer schools will enter their students to an AS-level in any given subject as a stop-off on the way to gaining an A-level. Higher education institutions (HEIs) will no longer have AS-level grades with which to assess prospective students’ applications. Nor will the number of AS-level entries be a predictor of numbers of A-level entries.
Second, exam questions and practical work are continuing to reduce their amount of structure and scaffolding, and there is a statutory requirement of 40% maths content. This should increase rigour, as students will need to practise questions from across the whole course, as well as improved fluency in maths, and improved retention of the skill developed and knowledge learned. Because of pressures on time and money, however, some schools will drop to having students study only three A-levels rather than four from the start of year 12, so those benefits may come at the cost of lower uptake.
Finally, the final grade will no longer include direct assessment of practical work and skills. There will instead be an endorsement of practical work, reported separately from a student’s grade and based on at least 12 practical tasks observed by a teacher and measured against common criteria. The written exams will also have questions benefitting students who have carried out practical activities.
This refocuses practical work on giving students a wider experience of practical work, rather than a rather forced single assessment. This kind of observation by teachers is a more natural way to evaluate practical work, and it will also reduce the tendency to drill students for just one assessment. This can only work, however, if HEIs require students to have passed the practical endorsement.
Practical work is also an area in which science A-levels in England diverge from those in the other nations of the UK. A-levels in Wales and Northern Ireland will still see practical work directly assessed and included in students’ final grades. This means that an A-grade in physics A-level in England is different from the same grade in Wales or Northern Ireland. Further differences will arise because the systems are regulated separately – and may diverge further over time.
Changes are coming to GCSEs, too, with some of them aimed at making the qualifications more demanding. The two-certificate award is renamed as combined science, while the triple science route remains. Ofqual are still consulting on practical work.
These changes are complicated and concerns about their impacts remain. But there is also reason to hope that students will ultimately receive stronger qualifications as a result – and be better prepared for a degree in physics.