Michael Gove’s decision to replace modular A levels with linear qualifications was sold on the basis that it would promote “deeper learning”. The days of mugging up on narrow units of subject content (modules) and resitting them to gain extra marks would be over. Challenging exams at the end of a two year linear course would require students to make synaptic links across a wide body of subject knowledge. This would stretch even the brightest students, restoring academic rigour to the A level system.
In most subjects, the reformed linear A levels have a similar level of subject content to the modular A levels they replace, so any ‘deeper learning’ will come from changes to assessment rather than extra content. ‘Deeper learning’ is not an easy concept to define or measure, and it is likely to be years before we know whether the Gove A level reforms have had their desired effect.
One impact however is starting to become clear. As schools and colleges publish their sixth form prospectuses for 2016-17, rather than learning more, there are worrying signs that students will learn less. Under the modular system, the majority studied four AS levels in the lower sixth. This breadth allowed students to mix subjects and continue a range of academic interests beyond GCSE. For example, students who had both scientific and creative interests could complement three separate sciences with art, whilst others looking to global opportunities would continue a modern foreign language as a fourth subject. This variety in their first year of sixth form study stretched students, enabled them to acquire a wider range of skills and knowledge at this high level, and kept career and university options open. It also raised eventual A level attainment as students dropping a subject between the lower and upper sixth could do so on the basis of actual subject experience at A level – very different to GCSE study – and assessment results. Students made better, more informed decisions about the subjects on which to concentrate their upper sixth efforts.
Unfortunately a combination of budget cuts (especially in further education) and the unattractiveness of stand-alone reformed AS levels (which do not count towards the final A level grade) are propelling many sixth forms to a three-subject programme of study. Put simply, there is growing evidence to suggest that the Gove reforms will lead to a 25% reduction in what lower sixth formers learn, and that subjects that were often their valuable fourth choices, will no longer make it onto their timetable . Michael Gove’s vision of deeper learning is quickly becoming a reality of reduced learning. Deeper learning has become cheaper learning, as managers in further education cut the curriculum and reduce the amount of teaching and hence staff costs to balance the books.
The Perse, in common with many independent schools is fortunate to be able to continue offering a four A level subject lower sixth curriculum supplemented by research projects, an enrichment programme and sports options. Our students will benefit from the breadth of the old modular system multiplied by the depth of the new linear exams. This represents an excellent sixth form education. Yet nationally many schools and colleges are finding they are forced to move from four to three subjects and as a result many sixth formers will find that in one fell swoop a quarter of their curriculum has disappeared. Gove wanted his reforms to give students “the potential to beat the world”. He wanted more content and more challenge for them, so he reformed the system to provide more teaching time and more stretching tests. How is it then possible that they find themselves learning less?