Senior Tory’s U-turn on proposal to scrap AS-levels

Head of select committee says the views of head teachers have changed his opinion

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The Independent Online

Government plans to break the link between AS and A-levels have come under fire from an unexpected source: the Conservatives’ own chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee.

Graham Stuart revealed his change of heart while questioning the Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan – saying he had supported the proposals outlined by her predecessor Michael Gove but was now opposing them after speaking to teachers about the effects.

“My instinct originally was the same as the Secretary of State’s until I talked to head teachers in my constituency,” he said.

Mr Stuart said they had told him the current link between the two levels helped pupils obtain higher grades than expected. At the moment, an AS-level pass is worth half an A-level and the marks can count towards a full A-level. The Coalition Government’s reforms mean that AS-levels will be a standalone exam in future – not counting towards A-level marks.

Mr Stuart said this “would have a more negative impact on disadvantaged students”, because they needed some evidence of progress in the sixth form to continue with their studies at university, rather than relying on an end-of-course exam after two years.

“There is little support for the decoupling out there,” Mr Stuart added. “What’s happened to the idea that ‘schools know best’, ‘teachers know what’s best for their children’? The overwhelming and nearly unanimous response from the sector is saying they don’t agree with the reforms… The university sector couldn’t be more vocal or more cross.”

Cambridge University is among those at the forefront of a campaign to keep the link between the two exams – claiming the AS gives admissions tutors the only concrete evidence of a pupil’s achievements in the sixth form. In some cases, the university argues, it has picked up on progress made by disadvantaged students who had not done so well in their GCSE exams.

Tristram Hunt, the shadow Education Secretary, has already pledged that an incoming Labour administration would reverse the change.

Mr Stuart said he could not see why linear A-levels – when exams are taken solely at the end of the course rather than halfway through – could not work for some pupils while others were helped by continuing to take AS-level exams linked to A-levels.

Ms Morgan argued that students would still be able to take AS-levels. She said that the new system had been brought in so students could escape from constant testing and be freed to study their chosen subjects in more depth.

Ms Morgan also defended GCSE reforms, saying research showed that there had been significant grade inflation at GCSE over a decade. This had resulted in the difference of a grade – meaning that a B grade in 2006 was the equivalent of a C grade achieved 10 years ago.

She rejected criticism that ministers were pushing ahead too quickly with exam reforms, adding: “The situation we faced, particularly in terms of exams and standards, was serious and there were concerns about grade inflation and how prepared our young people were for the world of work and going to university.

“I don’t think my predecessor [Mr Gove] felt there was a moment to lose. The seriousness of the situation was such that immediate action had to be taken.”

She acknowledged that the more rigorous nature of the new GCSE exams could lead to more schools failing to reach minimum targets for exam performance until they got used to the new system.

In the past, schools that fail to reach the minimum targets have been forced to become academies and taken over by a new private sponsor.