Picking A-level subjects has always been a big decision, but for students starting sixth form this month, it has been even tougher. “It’s confusing because I’m not sure what universities will accept,” said Samantha Onyekwere, who lives in Kent and has chosen maths, further maths, economics and physics at King’s Maths school, London. “I know AS exams are really important for university applications. It’s OK, because I am doing them, but other people won’t be.”
Reforms to be introduced this year will change the courses students take and the way they are assessed. In many subjects, AS exams – sat at the end of year 12 and a key part of university applications – have been decoupled from A-levels and will no longer make up half of students’ final grades.
Some sixth forms hit by severe funding cuts will not be entering any students for AS-levels. This means the information available to admissions tutors will be patchy and, for some applicants, greatly reduced. Universities have said no students will be disadvantaged by the changes, but details of how they will judge applicants are hazy – and need to be worked out soon.
“The AS is a piece of concrete information about how the candidate is performing, so when you’re making the decision you have a fairly good idea of how they’re doing,” says Angela Milln, director of admissions at Bristol University. The removal of the AS will make things harder for tutors, she says.
Bristol, like many universities, says that if a student does not have an AS-level, it will judge them on GCSE performance, personal statements, teacher predictions and references. Not only will this add to the pressure for teenagers, but it is hardly an ideal way to assess candidates intending to go to university two years or more after GCSEs.
About half of teachers’ predicted grades are wrong, according to a study by OCR, one of England’s biggest exam boards, and the shakeup of the A-level system is likely to make them even less reliable. “Virtually every bit of the exam system is in flux at the moment,” says Brian Lightman, general secretary at Association of School and College Leaders. “It is extremely difficult for teachers to make grade predictions in a time of change when we don’t know what the new exams will look like and we’re not used to them.”
To complicate matters further, GCSEs are also being reformed. From 2017, the grading system for GCSEs will change from A*-G to 9-1. It’ is unclear how these new grades will map on to the old ones, meaning that, for future sixth formers, universities may have even less reliable information available.
The systems that admissions teams have carefully developed to help guide decisions will go out of the window, says Alison Mullan, director of admissions at Lancaster University. “Each institution has got a lot of analysis on predicted grades versus actual outcomes for different subjects, so that they’ve got a sound understanding of how reliable they are. Now we’re going to be starting from scratch.”
Not all subjects are changing at the same time, and not all sixth forms are responding to the changes in the same way. About half will still be offering AS-levels in all subjects, according to a survey of 500 schools released by Ucas in January.
Last year, Cambridge University wrote to schools and sixth forms urging them to stick with AS-levels. But some have already ditched the exam, and more are likely to do so. This poses a major challenge for institutions that judge candidates on a tariff score system, allowing students to use AS marks to top up their Ucas score.
Stewart Harper, head of admissions at Leeds Beckett University, says the university is still deciding how to respond. “Our requirement hasn’t changed, but once the reforms comes in, we will need to keep looking at it.” He says the university cannot make a decision until it knows how many schools and colleges are definitely scrapping the AS.
Even where institutions offer places on a grade basis, rather than tariff system, it is questionable whether they should continue to look at AS-level performance. “It would be unfair if you had two candidates with similar GCSEs and the same predictions, but one had AS-levels and the other didn’t,” says Lynsey Hopkins, head of admissions at the University of Sheffield.
“It’s very hard to unknow what you know” agrees Paul Teulon, director of admissions at King’s College London. Both Sheffield and KCL say an AS grade would not make or break an application, but that the universities would look at other indicators such as GCSEs and predicted grades.
Oxford University fears the changes will stop students from disadvantaged backgrounds applying. “In autumn 2012 universities were invited to respond to the consultation from Ofqual and we said that we supported the AS,” says Samina Khan, director of undergraduate admissions. “This wasn’t listened to.
“We know from our experience that we’ll get students who wouldn’t have considered Oxford who are from families where no one has gone to university – they will get their AS results and suddenly feel Oxford is in their sights.”
The impact of removing the AS is an “unknown” she says, adding that admissions staff would be monitoring application rates from poorer students closely.
About 90% of Oxford applicants already sit at least one admissions test, adds Khan. “We’ve got a few more departments thinking about introducing an admissions test, and we do this with some rigour and discussion because we know we’re putting an extra requirement into a process.”
Cambridge University is also believed to be considering bringing back entrance tests, but declined to comment on what its admissions policy would be.
Not all medical schools – which previously asked for a fourth AS-level – have announced how they will adapt their entry requirements. Some, such as King’s College London, will ask students not sitting an AS to complete the extended project qualification.
Mary Curnock Cook, chief executive of Ucas, says some universities are already issuing advice to students. “The fact that we’ve got around 35 universities that have put public statements out on the Ucas website, and many more have said something about the reforms on their own websites, shows they are ahead of the game.”
However, about 100 universities have not yet said what they will do. Ucas expects them to put out admissions requirements for the following year by January, but this will be of little help to students who have already been asked to decide what to study.
“The problem is, there isn’t one view,” says James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association. “The diversity of the higher education sector, plus the fact that it’s regarded as something that will happen in a few years’ time, means it is hard for teachers to offer advice to students.”
Samantha, meanwhile, is not sure that students understand the changes. “Most of what I know is from searching online. For some people the subjects they’re choosing are based on what they can or can’t do based on the new AS structure. But that can affect what they can do at university.”
She has kept her options open by moving to a school that will enter her for AS exams in all subjects, but it is far from clear how important these will be to her university applications. “I’m still going to have to be revising for my economics and physics AS, which don’t actually count, at the same time as my maths and further maths, which do.”[“source-theguardian”]