A major reform hit A-level syllabuses nationwide in 2015 when all subjects were forced to give final exams to students after two years rather than grades based on different module assessments. Teachers and students say these changes have put them under far too much pressure.
The changes made to the a-levels examination officially began in September 2015 where they were made linear with students sitting their exams at the end of the two years. This means they have changed from module assessments to 100% final exams.
AS-levels, a qualification you received after the first year of A-levels, were also adjusted as a result becoming a stand-alone qualification with no contribution to the final A-level grade if a student decides to take an examination for one.
A change was also made to coursework with most A-level subjects either completely removing them or only being worth a maximum of 20% of the course.
The main argument for these changes was because it was believed that A-levels were too easy with students doing really well in coursework modules inflating their final grade when combined with the exam result.
Michael Gove, the former Education Secretary who made these changes, wanted to make these exams more fit for purpose.
He told the MPs on the Education Select Committee: “I was worried that there was too much assessment and too little learning and it seemed to me that one of the most effective ways of which we could encourage the sort of deep thinking that we want to have in people, not just who are going to go into university but who are going to enter an increasingly testing and sophisticated world of work was to move towards a linear level”.
The Department for Education said: “The content for the new A-levels has been reviewed and updated. Universities played a greater role in this for the new qualifications than they did previously.”
But it’s being claimed that these sudden changes to the syllabus have applied a large amount of pressure on both students and teachers, with having to prepare for the new content created by exam boards to fit the new reformed version of A-levels.
The teenagers trialing these new A-levels say they are put under a lot of stress and anxiety due to the lack of content and revision materials such as past papers and text books for these new syllabuses. This makes it harder for these students to study and prepare themselves for the exam at the end of the two years thus creating an unnecessary concern regarding study skills.
As far back as 2008 researcher David Putwain was suggesting that concerns about having the right study material could cause huge pupil stress:
“Poor study skills would result in high test anxiety because students would anticipate failure as a direct result of their study skills”.
This creates an atmosphere of stress surrounding the final exam at the end of the two years with a final grade being assessed purely by exams (unless the subject they take has a 20% coursework module).
All of these factors could affect the mental health and performance of many students unknowingly.
An 18 year-old now in university after doing the new A-levels, Zachary Gilbert-Murphy, agrees the pressure affected his mental health:
“God, A-levels… I could write a whole book talking about the whole experience and how challenging it was to get through mentally. I’m just glad it’s over now.”
The hardest aspect for him was: “Workload management. It’s hard to go from a very structured and relatively easy GCSE style of learning with modules to jump up to an independant way of working with more work at the same time and with that work being much harder.”
“You’re just given freedom with no real experience of how to manage it sensibly in first year so you end up trying to make up for it in the second year just before the final exams which a lot of people struggle with.”
Students are not the only one who find the changes stressful, teachers also have trouble with the new syllabuses. Not only do they have to create brand new teaching materials for their students, they also have to mark mock exams students based on their own interpretations of the mark scheme provided by exam boards leading to over marking or under marking.
Also as there are no past papers and only sample ones, teachers have to create their own questions on the syllabus which may not be accurate.
A teacher, who asked to stay anonymous, said: “I’d say the most difficult part would definitely be marking and creating the mock papers because I’m forced to mark strictly which could be disheartening to many students when they get their results back but I’d rather that than be too lenient and have them be shocked after they do the real exam.”
They went on to say: “The only past papers available are the sample ones provided by the exam board so we have to create mock papers for students which can be difficult at times as there is so little material to base it on”.
Rosamund McNeil, from the National Union of Teachers, told the BBC: “The upheaval of a hastily reformed curriculum and the changes leading to a reduction in much of the coursework elements, created unnecessary stress and concern for pupils and teachers alike.”
However, it does not mean there is not anything to combat stress students go through. Some sixth forms have put in support systems to reduce stress by scheduling tutor one-to-ones and workshops that teach students study skills and motivate students using third party companies.
In the tutor one-to-ones, teachers help students create a revision time table and with any concerns they may have. They also advise them to stay active and have healthy amounts of sleep otherwise it’ll be much tougher.
Parents can also help with stress their children may be experiencing by encouraging these same behaviours and creating a revision time table with them if they do not already have one.
Having spoken to everyone involved it would seem that, whilst I think these changes may have been required to reduce inflated grades by easier modules, the changes could have been phased in. Teachers and text book authors could have been given syllabuses much earlier to give them time to plan, rather than phasing them in using different subjects year by year.
Also, although there are small support systems in place for students, there need to be far more. One option would be more help to advertise a school counsellor to students, as many I’ve spoken to said they wouldn’t seek help without being reminded.