A'level reform, it's about time

Changes to A Levels come as no surprise as it has been on Education Secretary Michael Gove’s agenda from the start of this government.

The key aspects of the reforms are:

  • A new standalone AS qualification covering half the content of an A Level which could be delivered over either one or two years.
  • A fully linear A Level with assessment of students’ knowledge and understanding “across the whole course” taking place at the end of two years.
  • Creation of an organisation led by the Russell Group of universities to advise Ofqual on the content of A levels and to take part in an annual post-examination review to consider standards.

These changes will lead to significant changes for all concerned, particularly in the range of subject options available to learners and the choices they make about which qualifications to take.

The proposed reform at Key Stage 5 will also require significant changes to current approaches to assessment as the introduction of linear assessment will take place alongside a drive to reduce the amount of internal assessment (coursework).

For me the most relevant point in Ofqual’s response was the inclusion of computing as one of the first phase of development as this is one of the qualifications my team manages.

I am a passionate advocate of the subject of computing within schools and this programme of reform will provide both an opportunity and challenge for us.

Computing, especially at KS5, is important for many reasons.

Computing has an immense impact on modern life. The job prospects are excellent and the field is rigorous, intellectually vibrant, and multi-faceted however Britain is facing a shortage of workers with programming skills.

Computing will contribute to the next great leaps in science, medicine, space exploration and tackling climate change. An example of how important computer science can be is the sequencing of the human genome in 2001 which would not have been possible without computer scientists. After short DNA fragments of the genome were sequenced in biology labs, computers were used to figure out how to piece the fragments together. That required considerable new programming and that work is now paving the way for better computational methods of detecting and curing diseases.

GCE A-level results released in 2012 revealed that the number of students taking A-level Computing has fallen for the 9th consecutive year to 3,800; this accounts for just 0.4% of all A-levels sat in the UK. My hope is that the new programmes of study, the inclusion of computing in the Ebacc, the fact that students can now study this at KS4 (when we last developed A Levels there was nothing at gcse level in this subject) and the growing profile and popularity of the subject area will have a significant impact on uptake at KS5.  However I think there is also work we need to do on improving our provision at that level to make it a more attractive option.

Interestingly (and worryingly) the proportion of females who sat the 2012 Computing A-level is very low at 8%, the same proportion as in 2011. The fact that a larger proportion of females candidates gained higher grades than males (16.8% of females were awarded A* or A compared to 15.5% of males) suggests that the subject itself is accessible enough to female students but there is obviously a job to do in selling it to them.

I believe that this subject is an excellent choice for students even if they don’t intend to pursue a career in computer science and has a wider value to our economy and society.

The vast majority of careers in the future will require an understanding of computing. People working in all disciplines (from art and entertainment, to communications and health care, to factory workers, small business owners, and retail store staff) will need to understand computing to be competitive in their fields, especially in the ever increasingly global markets companies have to operate in.

Thinking broader than that, people in all disciplines and careers are involved in the same intensely creative activity of problem solving, and computing teaches students to think about the problem-solving process itself and to come up with innovative and creative solutions.

So it is this context that I approach this redevelopment!  There are some very practical questions that we need to consider in the near future and I would welcome anyone’s comments on these.

Among the many questions we will need to answer will be:

  • What inclusion of mathematics should there be in the A Level given that this forms a large proportion of first year study at university?
  • What is the most valid and reliable means of assessing candidates, and is the inclusion of coursework important for this qualification?
  • What content should be added/removed from existing qualifications to make them up to date and relevant?
  • What kind of progression should the qualification be targeted at?
  • What content could be the stand alone AS qualification?

I’ll keep you updated via this blog on the development of the new qualification and the wider programme of A level reform.