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SCORE involvement in A-level reform

Background - what happened?

A government-led review and reform of the A-level system was commenced in 2012 by the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofqual in consultation with experts and the public. SCORE commented on proposed changes to science and mathematics A-levels through private and public engagement with the bodies and experts involved.

SCORE welcomed the purpose and aims for reform, however, raised many concerns regarding changes that could be detrimental to science education. Such concerns were rooted in the failings of the process itself. This is a summary of SCORE's involvement, the documents in the right column represent SCORE's public input into the reform process since 2012.

Key policy concerns

Assessment of practical work: In November 2013 Ofqual proposed that marks for practical work in science (school coursework, assessed by teachers) would no longer count towards final A-level grades in the sciences. It was proposed that written questions be developed sufficiently to account for a student's experience of independent practical work and that experiments continue outside of the A-level grading framework. SCORE and partners in the science education community opposed these proposals.

SCORE says that:

  • both school reporting procedures and university admissions processes will be affected, including how attainment in science is measured and recorded
  • separation of practical marks from the A-level grade will leave universities with an incomplete reflection of students' scientific skills and competencies
  • within a narrow accountability framework schools may reduce opportunities for practical work if the separate mark is viewed as less important than A-level grade
  • poorer performing schools are often less inclined to resource practical work so reform is likely to have a larger effect on disadvantaged students
  • there is no practical assessment framework for AS-levels; this means that AS-level students may not encounter practical work at all. This needs to be rectified
  • while this assessment model intends to overcome perceived malpractice in practical science coursework and address concerns over differentiation of marks; in reality it will not tackle these issues.

Timescale: SCORE has raised concerns regarding the speed of the reform process and recommended that in order to carry out a meaningful and much sought after reform of A-level qualifications in England, a measured approach must be taken, including the implementation of a realistic timescale that takes into account operational issues and piloting schemes.

Separation of content and assessment: Although the DfE and Ofqual have occasionally consulted together, on the whole during the reform process Ofqual work on assessment has been divorced from DfE content drafting. SCORE believes that it is impossible to separate content from assessment, where both define the ways in which students learn. Conducting reform of content and assessment in parallel rather than in unison has had a negative impact on the reform of A-levels.

Original recommendations: SCORE concerns were evident in the recommendations made in 2012 to the first round of consultation on A-level review. These included:

  • national subject committees should be established to approach A-level design properly/ transparently
  • reform must ensure the assessment is fit for purpose and high quality
  • support retaining the relationship between AS and A-level, but welcome a larger weighting for A2
  • it is not possible to produce new A-level examinations for 2014 but steps for improvement achievable in timescale
  • all new A-levels should be introduced together and not in phases
  • all new A-levels should be piloted before introduction.

 Any system put in place to develop A-levels should:

  • be free from any commercial interests
  • draw on appropriate subject expertise to represent the nature of the subject and maintain standards
  • be able to represent existing and potential users of their subject
  • have national coverage
  • be properly resourced and funded
  • operate transparently.

2014 and the future

Ofqual next steps:

  • reformed A-levels in the sciences will be introduced for first teaching in September 2015
  • the assessment of practical work in the sciences will follow the Ofqual proposal. Students will get a 'pass' or 'fail' grade for practical work, separate from their grade from the written exams
  • all assessment of practical skills at AS-level will happen through the written examination.
  • Find out more about Ofqual plans

National curriculum committees

The SCORE subject organisations, Institute of Physics, Society of Biology and Royal Society of Chemistry have established national curriculum committees for each of the science subjects. These will draw on the expertise of the organisations to develop a comprehensive view of an appropriate school science curriculum, from primary to university entrance.

ASE also runs longstanding committees for both the primary curriculum and 11-19 education in the sciences. These will be involved in national strategies working towards a cohesive curriculum in science education.

Practical science research consortium

The consortium comprises the Gatsby Foundation, Nuffield Foundation and Wellcome Trust. It is embarking on a three-year programme of work supporting practical science in UK schools by improving the quality of assessment. SCORE will assist and support the consortium on aspects of the project that draw on SCORE areas of expertise and experience.