82.As regulator, we have responsibility for overseeing the implementation of the A level reforms. It is worth noting that the higher education sector is currently undergoing a significant period of change, in terms of both funding and the regulatory landscape. This may impact on the capacity and resources that institutions have available to commit to these reforms. Therefore we propose to roll out these reforms gradually, and suggest three main phases:
- For A level courses starting from September 2013, we would propose to make the changes to assessment structure set out above. These changes will not require any changes to the design of the qualifications; they will simply affect when assessments may be taken, and the rules around resits.
- In September 2014, we would propose that new A levels in some priority subjects would be available for first teaching. This is a very tight timescale, given that new qualifications would ideally be in schools and colleges a year in advance of first teaching. But it may be possible in a number of priority subjects, and we would welcome views on what those subjects should be.
- During the years 2015 to 2018, we would propose that new A levels in the remaining subjects would be evaluated and if necessary redeveloped and rolled out, learning from experience with the priority subjects.
83.The roll out of subjects from 2015 to 2018 will be coordinated by us on a subject-by-subject basis: we cannot have new and old versions of A levels in a particular subject being taught side by side. We will discuss with exam boards and universities how the process of prioritisation and coordinating development should work.
84.The last time that any existing A level courses could start would therefore be September 2018; any A levels that had not been reviewed and retained or redeveloped would no longer be available after that. Over the coming years, therefore, subject communities will need to consider what A levels they would like to continue to be available; this may also include subjects that are not currently offered.
85.Where subject communities review the existing A levels and come to a consensus that they continue to be fit for purpose without needing redevelopment, we will allow existing A levels to continue, provided that they meet our new requirements. We will consider with exam boards and universities how these arrangements should work.
86.It is possible that current GCSEs will need to be replaced within a relatively short timeframe, adding to the burden for students, schools and colleges. Our impact assessments (which we are conducting in parallel with this consultation) will consider the effect of the combination of these reforms. Given the potential scale and complexity of the changes that could be brought about through these reforms, adequate preparation time and available support will be more important than might have been the case otherwise.
87.Revising all A level subjects at once would place unacceptable pressure on the exam boards to develop a number of new specifications and sample assessments, alongside their other commitments. It would place an additional burden on schools and colleges, and it would also put strain on a new and untried system, as well as the universities playing a new and integral part in it.
88.There are already a number of regulations in place for the existing A level qualifications, and we must remove these regulations in order for new ones to be introduced. Taking all this into account, we think that it would be best to remove these regulations in a phased way to allow for the gradual introduction of the new A levels subject by subject. However, exam boards would be free to start their development in any subject at any stage throughout this period.
89.So that we can be confident that this reform is effective, we think that the reform of a limited range of priority subjects should be introduced first. We would welcome views on what these priority subjects should be. There is a case for focusing first on subjects where there is most concern about the current A levels. There is also a case for focusing on subjects where there are well established stakeholders to coordinate the work.
90.We think a good option would be to start with a selection from the following: chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, English literature, geography, history, French, German and Spanish.
91.If we took a distinct suite of qualifications such as chemistry, physics and biology, or French, German and Spanish, it would provide a sound basis from which a development model could be devised and then adapted for other subjects. A levels in these subjects would be introduced in September 2014 only if high-quality A levels had been developed and accredited in good time to allow teachers to prepare. We would review progress regularly, and if necessary delay implementation.
92.Following a review of the reform’s initial success in these subjects, we will then remove subject criteria and introduce new A levels in a systematic way. As set out above, we propose to set a deadline of September 2018 – when most current A levels will be ten years old – for current qualifications to be reviewed or developed.