December 2014


  • re:SEND
    Richard Newton Chance explores how the calculation of funding for special needs education is changing as the system moves from statements to education, health and care plans (EHCPs). More
  • Tackling Inequality
    Carolyn Roberts wonders why inequality persists when it comes to recruiting leaders and offers some ideas regarding how to tackle the barriers still faced by key groups More
  • Rethinking post-16 advice
    Changes to AS and A levels are creating a minefield when it comes to advising students on post-16 options. Tim Miller outlines the issues and some possible solutions. More
  • Meducation
    Chronic health conditions can permanently damage a young person’s educational chances without the right support. Libby Dowling looks at the policies, training and other measures schools need to think about under a new legal duty. More
  • Impact is what counts
    Workload pressures in schools are exacerb ated by the often arbitrary demands of ‘compliance’, says Brian Lightman. The government needs to recognise the fact and take a grown-up approach to accountability and inspection. More
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Changes to AS and A levels are creating a minefield when it comes to advising students on post-16 options. Tim Miller outlines the issues and some possible solutions.

Rethinking post-16 advice

The autumn term drive to recruit students for the sixth form is almost over. With prospectuses handed out, websites updated and Year 12 tour guides hoarse with selling, Year 11 students are now making crucial choices about their post-16 options.

Yet, as we all know, change is afoot and is creating anomalies and inconsistencies.

Take the Year 11 student who selects English literature, economics, geography and politics. If they sit AS levels in English and economics at the end of Year 12, the mark will now not count towards the final A levels. In geography and politics, on the other hand, the AS mark will still contribute 50 per cent to the overall mark because those subjects have yet to be reformed.

In all, 13 subjects will be taught within the new framework from September 2015; most others will follow in 2016, although politics will not be revised until 2017.

To those advising students, the next three years will be turbulent at A level with even greater change at GCSE and significant revision to BTECs. Given the phased nature of the changes, schools and colleges will probably come up with different solutions to the AS level/A level challenge, and funding is likely to force some hard, finance-driven choices, as well as the opportunity to review and re-shape the curriculum.

ASCL’s own advice document reminds leaders to “[e]nsure that governors have agreed the curriculum structure . . . and that staff are well briefed to be able to discuss it with students. If you wish to delay your decision (about curriculum structural changes), make students and parents aware of this and your reasons for taking this course of action.”

Certainly, teachers and careers advisers need to be briefed about school policies and have a detailed understanding of this new landscape, and many clearly have been. Yet excellent reports by both the Gatsby Foundation and the National Careers Council have found that the quality of career and course guidance has been variable in schools in recent years.

Questions for leaders

 It raises some key questions for leadership teams about the quality of professional development and training currently being offered to careers professionals and school advisers to equip them to manage the change and to be of greatest value to students and parents:

  • Do those responsible for providing advice and guidance fully understand the details of the new system?
  • How will the new GCSE 9–1 grading system affect sixth-form entry criteria and advice on post-16 course choices?
  • Will more students switch to vocational courses if linear A levels are perceived to be more challenging? If so, are advisers ready to offer accurate sector advice?
  • What advice should be given about the fourth AS subject? Should the default position still be to do this in the interests of curriculum breadth?

The answers are not straightforward, given the piecemeal nature of the changes and the absence of real clarity about funding. Many schools, sensibly, intend to maintain the status quo in 2015, deferring major decisions on AS entries and curriculum structure until 2016.Clearly, once students begin to come through with new GCSE qualifications, schools will have to consider entry criteria for sixth-form subjects. New GCSEs are meant to be more challenging but, with AS levels supposedly unchanged in rigour, will some schools rethink Year 12 structures? Maths / Further maths is provoking concern about assessment load and linkage with a tougher GCSE, prompting likely delay in introducing the new AS/A level in this subject.

Universities’ role

The reaction of universities will inevitably shape schools’ responses, although both are looking at what the other is planning. King’s College London was among the first to produce a document summarising its own likely policy in the next few years once applicants begin to come through in 2016-17. It says: ‘In the future, we understand that there are a large range of options open to schools and colleges in relation to whether AS level exams are completed at all or in just some subjects. The College will continue to maintain its position in that neither advantage, nor disadvantage will be given to students who present these qualifications.’

King’s asks that UCAS references indicate school policy on whether AS levels have been taken and whether a fourth AS subject was offered and recognises that turbulence in predicted grades will be a feature for a few years.

Scenarios and training

As for what a advice to give to students, there will be a wide range of scenarios:

  • Will students and parents question the point of sitting externally assessed AS exams if they do not contribute to the A level mark and reduce teaching time?
  • Will reformed A levels be thought to carry greater kudos and thus influence subject choices? Or will the prospect of the AS counting towards the final result make some wish to ‘play safe’ initially and choose unreformed subjects?
  • Institutionally, how should one address the needs of the talented mathematician when early sitting of units may be difficult once maths is reformed in 2016?

Advisers and teachers should work through these sorts of questions in the coming months and ensure that parents of younger children have a clear understanding of the changes and their impact.

Subject open evenings provide excellent opportunities to draw parents and carers into what lies ahead for their child. The effect on students of linear courses, more terminal examinations and the absence of mid-course modular results as a guide to progress could be an anxiety-inducing mix, and students will need help with workload planning and revision strategies.

A self-improving system

Training those who advise students leads back to the National Careers Council – of which ASCL General Secretary Brian Lightman is an associate member – and its latest report, published in September 2014. Among four recommendations, it recognised that good local practice in careers education, information, advice and guidance needs to be shared more effectively and proposed that ‘the government should support the scaling up of existing and successful initiatives and the piloting of innovative local models’. This also accords with the philosophy underpinning ASCL’s blueprint for education and its concept of a self-improving, school-led system.

In London, curriculum changes and the implications for those advising young people is a training area recognised by the establishment of the Central London Careers Hub (CLCH) by experienced Careers Adviser Andy Gardner. The two-hour training sessions encompass far more than how to respond to the new curriculum with sessions on career routes into a wide range of jobs presented by key professional experts in each sector, something that will be highly valuable in an environment where more students may opt for vocational courses. It is to be hoped that other parts of the country will develop similar local training solutions.

High-quality careers guidance for our young people is critically important to help them and their families understand the post-16 changes and what they mean in practice. School and college leadership teams should ensure that it is a high priority to plan careers advice and support systems as rigorously as they will be investing in professional development with exam boards to help staff teach and manage the new courses.

Communicating changes to stakeholders, ensuring that those involved have the necessary information themselves to inform and guide young people and keeping up to date via Ofqual, ASCL and exam board websites will ensure that no student loses out and that your school or college has a clearly defined strategy to manage change.

Further reading

Tim Miller is a former Deputy Head and a Consultant on post-16 curriculum and information, advice and guidance.