Controversial plans for reforming school exams could see the scrapping of AS-levels, the end of coursework and less reliance on re-sits, it was announced yesterday.
The proposals from Ofqual, the exams regulator, herald the return of the traditional A-level format, with everything resting on exams taken by pupils at the end of their two years of sixth form.
Many universities – including Cambridge – see AS-levels as the only way they can obtain evidence of pupils' achievements post-GCSE, as they are mainly taken at the end of the first year of the sixth form. Ministers recently abandoned the idea of pupils applying to universities after their A-levels.
However, Ofqual said it had been told that intense preparation for AS-level exams meant that pupils neglected sport, drama and voluntary work in the first year of the sixth form.
Glenys Stacey, Ofqual's chief executive, said Ofqual remained "neutral" on the future of the exam but said scrapping it was one of three options.
Students would also be limited to just one re-sit of their exams under the plans, as Ofqual said there was evidence that some did not take it seriously when they could have limitless tries.
Ofqual recommends universities have the power to design A-level courses and sign off exams. Such a move is favoured by Education Secretary Michael Gove, who believes it will lead to more rigorous questions. Ofqual suggested such exams should have the support of at least 20 universities – 12 of whom should be good research institutions.
At present A-levels are broken down into four modules, two taken in the first year of the sixth form and two in the second year. Ofqual suggested this system should be ended in favour of more focus on the end-of-second-year exam, at 18.
But in its consultation paper, Ofqual admits: "We know some stakeholders from higher education and teaching do support the AS-level qualification being kept. They believe that it increases the breadth of the curriculum."
Most young people take four subjects at AS-level, dropping their weakest one when they go on to A-level. Some stakeholders say this has "a negative impact on teaching time, limits synoptic learning and results in students focussing on exams at the expense of the pursuit of other interests such as sport, drama and volunteering", says Ofqual.
A spokesman for Pearsons, the company in charge of the Edexcel exam board, said AS-levels helped support the university selection process.
There was anger over the proposal to put universities in charge of certain exams. Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the million+ university think-tank, said: "A-levels would lose all credibility for students, employers and higher education if their approval depended on a small sub-set of universities."
The reform of A-levels will be completed by September 2018. The first stages will be introduced in September 2013.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, urged ministers not to speed ahead with reforms, adding that it was "simplistic" to say the modular approach was easier than end-of-term exams.