A level delay is welcome move

2 Dec

The introduction of new maths AS and A levels will be delayed by a year until September 2017, following concerns – raised by Voice and others – that students would struggle to bridge the gap between the current GCSE and the new A levels.

Exams regulator Ofqual and the A Level Content Advisory Board (Alcab) advised that the current GCSE and the new A level would not line up in terms of content.  

In a letter to the Chief Regulator, Glenys Stacey, announcing the delay, Schools Minister Nick Gibb wrote:

“You have advised that for mathematics the gap between the current GCSE and the new A-level is particularly significant.

“Your concern is that the current GCSE does not have the same building blocks as the new GCSE to prepare students for the mathematical problem-solving content in the new A-level.

“I am content to accept your recommendation to defer first teaching of the new mathematics and further mathematics A/AS-levels until September 2017.”

Glenys Stacey said that the change would help to ensure a smooth transition to the new A-level:

“Students will have studied first the reformed GCSEs which will better prepare them for the updated A-level content.”

Ofqual said that the additional year would also allow more time for schools to prepare for the new courses.

This is a decision to be welcomed.

In its Official Response 2073 to the DfE’s consultation on Reformed GCSE and A level subject content (September 2014), Voice commented:  

“On the surface, it appears that the revised A level content is eminently appropriate in view of the issues raised in the ALCAB report, and it should facilitate progress to undergraduate study. However, there are several factors which might militate against this. 

“The suggested changes are a stark departure from historical practice, and teaching could suffer as a result of this, especially as the decision has been taken not to pilot the new specification. Much will depend on high quality training being funded and implemented so that teachers are fully prepared to adapt to the changes.

“An even more fundamental problem is that the new A level will build on the reformed GCSE and this will disadvantage initial cohorts who will have studied only the current GCSE before embarking on the new A level.

“This is compounded by the problem that the Programmes of Study for Key Stages 1-3 lack age appropriateness in that content which is currently required at higher Key Stages has been pushed down to lower Key Stages

In mathematics, more than any other subject, we fear that this takes insufficient account of research into child development, especially in relation to how children learn and the individual differences in rates of development between children.

“It appears that more content at a higher level of demand has been pushed down from the secondary to the primary curriculum in order to ensure that pupils will be ‘secondary ready’ for an even more demanding curriculum at KS3 and KS4.

“In a subject such as mathematics, in which early failure can lead to severe psychological impairment (including numerophobia and arithmophobia), it is irresponsible to impose demands which are unattainable for many children. The attempt to stretch the more able risks alienating the lesser able, and this may prevent smooth incremental progression for many pupils, resulting in a lower uptake at A level.

The key to effective progression in the learning of mathematics is to ensure that pupils master mathematical reasoning at an early stage, thus establishing a secure foundation on which to build.

“The stance taken in the new curriculum seems to involve expanding content and teaching more demanding content at an earlier age in an attempt to accelerate progress, which runs counter to what is actually needed. This even goes against the Government’s original intention of reducing curriculum content so that pupils could master less content in more depth. This policy could severely jeopardise the success of the new A level.

“The problems cited above…also affect further mathematics, perhaps more so. There is also the additional problem that abandoning the current structure, which has been successful in coaxing students to progress steadily by means of a carefully designed staged approach, may render selecting further mathematics a high risk option for many students.

“Furthermore, the sequential nature of mathematics is not best served by the move to a fully linear and terminal system of assessment.

“The proposals for AS mathematics are hampered by the same difficulties facing A level mathematics, as outlined in our response … above. The impact of these difficulties may be more severe in the case of AS mathematics, as students who take this as a stand-alone option often do so because it supports a wide range of alternative progression routes where mathematics is a useful, or even necessary, precursor to undergraduate study in non-STEM subjects, such as business studies, economics and social science.

It is, therefore, vital that any risks which might threaten the rapid and sustained uptake of AS mathematics seen in recent years are managed carefully.

“In terms of subject content, a major threat is the planned removal of any flexibility in the choice of units. Whilst this may facilitate progression to dedicated degree courses in mathematics, it is counter-productive in terms of supporting the wider range of progression goals being pursued by other students.

“The proposals for AS further mathematics are affected by the issues already raised …  above.  The issues raised … are particularly pertinent to AS further mathematics, as removing the current structure, which was designed to enable students to ‘dip a toe in the water’, may put students off from studying AS further mathematics. This may be mitigated, to some extent, by the retention of a degree of flexibility in the choice of subject content, although this will depend on what awarding bodies choose to offer, especially in terms of the number and range of applied options.”

Further information

Ofqual: New GCSEs, AS and A levels accredited to be taught from 2015

Voice: AS “adds breadth to the curriculum and enables students to make a more informed choice” 

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