Back to news

Separating the AS and the A level will harm students' progress

Tuesday 12 August 2014 Further Education

NUS Vice President (Further Education) Joe Vinson explains how the current AS level and A level structure helped him and others through post-16 study.

Read NUS' full statement on decoupling the AS from the A level.

Today is the start of a really important week for so many of our members. This week thousands of students will be opening envelops on Thursday which will contain a handful of letters that have the potential to determine their future.

A levels and AS levels for many are the key that unlocks a bright future, whether that’s going into the workplace, into higher education or other study routes.

However, there are a number of proposed changes to A levels that I fully believe will have a detrimental impact to so many people achieving their full potential.

In particular, the decoupling of the AS and the A level qualification presents huge concerns. In essence means that AS will become a standalone qualification and not contribute to the A level grade at all.

There are several reasons why this is really worrying.

Firstly, learning for two years solid and then being assessed at the end with no testing on a modular or even yearly basis is really stressful, and its actually detrimental to many students who are perfectly able in terms of understanding and applying knowledge, but struggle with anxiety when under pressure.

I’m sick of hearing that it’s ok to throw 18 year olds in at the deep end, stretching them to breaking point so they can regurgitate what they’ve been taught over the last two years because ‘it prepares them for the real world’. Which real world? Workplaces don’t and shouldn’t expect their employees to be stretched to breaking point so why is it ok for young people to be asked to do the same?

Secondly, the AS as part of the full A level is a great marker for the individual and their tutors to be able to assess their progress and make decisions on their progression onto A2. Many students pick up 4 or sometimes 5 AS levels in their first year with the intention of dropping them after the first year exams depending on their grades and interest in the subject.

Considering careers advice for young people is currently somewhat lacking, it's important we’re not boxing young people in from the age of 15 onto a ridged pathway and allow them some flexibility when it comes to choosing what they want to do.

Finally, the AS is also a key tool when it comes to selecting a university, for both the student and the institution. It’s a clear way for a student to see if they’re on track to get the grades for the course they want and for the institutions it acts a foundation to make admissions decisions.

I know first-hand how important it is to have flexibility in studying A-Levels. After receiving some pretty appalling careers advice, I had no idea what I wanted to do after college, let alone what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Because of this I took a mixture of AS Levels: Biology, Chemistry, Law and Politics.

As time went on it became clear to me through the two assessments in my first year, in addition to the fact that I was beginning to understand more about where I wanted to go, that Chemistry was no longer for me. I was allowed to start a new AS Level in my second year, leaving the woes of Chemistry behind, and go on to achieve an A in Sociology AS level in my second year.

None of this would have been possible under the proposed reforms, leaving me with grades that didn’t reflect my true ability to learn or understand difficult concepts.

Instead I would have been labelled as a failure because one of my A-Levels would have been ‘below par’. But I’m not alone, thousands of students every year decide their initial subject choice at 16 years of age wasn’t right for them, and they make a small change to their choices.

Part of the answer is better careers advice for young people, but the most important answer is to give students the flexibility they need to succeed.

That is why, that during A levels results week, we’re calling on Nicky Morgan, the new Education Minister, to reverse the decoupling of the AS and A level allowing students to take an AS as part of a full A level qualification.

It’s not just NUS that thinks this is a bad decision, sector organisations such as AoC, Sixth Form College Association, NUT, UCU and others, including numerous FE and HE students’ unions have put their names to the demands we’re making of the minister too.

Follow Joe's blog for upates on Further Education.