by Kevin Brennan
Last week’s announcement by Michael Gove that AS Levels would no longer count towards an A Level grade was a classic example of making policy based on dogma not evidence.
Back in 2010 Michael Gove announced his intention to get rid of AS Levels. They were originally introduced to give students a chance to study a broader range of subjects in year 12 (the old lower 6th). Students could decide to specialise in year 13 by dropping one or two subjects, but still have a good AS qualification to show for it. If they carried on, their AS mark could contribute to the final A Level grade in that subject.
One objection to AS Levels was that because of modular testing students in year 12 faced exams very early on, before having matured sufficiently. This was dealt with by getting rid of such early assessments which also discouraged entering early assessments just to ‘bank’ a mark. This was a reasonable reform to AS.
But Michael Gove was left with a problem that despite his stated intention to scrap AS Levels altogether, it was clear that he had very little support for his plans.
The right thing to do would have been to retain AS Levels as modified, but instead he has chosen to render them largely irrelevant by removing their ability to act as a building block to A-Level.
In a statement in the House of Commons this week his ministerial colleague Elizabeth Truss tried to give the impression that this was what Russell Group universities wanted. When it was pointed out to her that this was false, she grandstanded.
In fact as I said in the Commons, Cambridge university had already made it clear how much they valued AS Level as a good predictor for degree performance.
I quoted Dr Geoff Parks, Director of Admissions at Cambridge university,
“We are worried…if AS-level disappears we will lose many of the gains in terms of fair admissions and widening participation that we have made in the last decade. We are convinced that a large part of this success derives from the confidence engendered in students from non-traditional backgrounds when they achieve high examination grades at the end of year 12”.
What is even more striking is the research evidence presented by Cambridge university which Michael Gove chose to ignore.
In a research paper their General Admissions Research Working Party found that AS Level grades were easily the best predictors for degree performance, proving to be a “sound test verging on excellent” in every subject except maths where the STEP test was the best predictor.
In other words Michael Gove has chosen to emasculate an exam which a top Russell Group university says gives them the best way to judge how well a state school pupil is likely to do at university, at a time when he says he wants more state school pupils to be successful in applying.
Stephen Twigg has said that evidence of what works should inform education policy. Michael Gove has already had his knuckles rapped by the Statistics Authority for distorting the evidence from international research by the OECD in the PISA tables.
The exam regulator, Ofqual, should ignore Michael Gove’s “policy steer” and retain AS Level as a building block to A Level, because the evidence for retention is, according to the Cambridge academics, ‘striking’.
Keeping AS level as a building block is what the evidence demands. Not to do so has the potential to close the door of opportunity to state school pupils for the sake of one man’s narcissistic adherence to his own dogma.
Kevin Brennan MP is shadow schools minister