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Decoupling AS level

When it comes to the decoupling of AS level from A-level the press and blogosphere have focused mainly on the reaction of universities to the policy. They have come out against it, arguing that the information they get from AS level results makes it easier for them to select students accurately. This has led, by the way, to some discussion as to whether AS results or GCSEs are a better guide to future university achievement.

But as a former French teacher I am more concerned with the how the new AS level, as currently proposed by Ofqual/DfE, will affect the numbers ready to carry on with modern languages into the sixth form.

As a result of the current structure of AS and A2 level, considerable numbers of students choose to continue with a language for one year. They are often the type of able student who drops a language at the end of AS level to continue with maths and science. They frequently choose a language because they enjoy it and see the value of keeping a practical skill going for a year.

The new AS level, a standalone qualification, equal in difficulty to A-level, but with less content will, unfortunately, discourage such students from continuing with a language for that extra.

Firstly, the current AS level is a bridge between GCSE and A2 level. Although some students still find it a serious jump from GCSE, the specification is designed to contain overlap with GCSE, and it is approachable by the large majority of students with at least a B grade at GCSE. Indeed, the mark scheme, certainly for the oral component, is on the generous side. This means that students can be attracted to the subject for that extra year and some of these, realising how much they like it, change their minds and continue with a language even though that had not been their original intention. This phenomenon occurs for all subjects to an extent, but particularly in languages.

Secondly, whereas it is now standard practice for students to do four subjects at AS level, decoupling AS level while making it harder may well discourage schools from even offering AS levels. They may advise students to focus their efforts on doing well in just three (harder than before) A-levels. My hunch would be that AS MFL would become an option for a tiny minority of students who feel able to do it and whose schools could afford to lay it on. As it is, a significant number of students find they cannot do a language because there are not enough students in their school to make it financially viable. This situation will be exacerbated.

Its is easy to foresee, then, that the numbers doing AS level languages, and therefore languages as a whole, will fall even more from their currently perilous level.

If you have read my previous blogs on A-level reform, or studied the Ofqual and ALCAB documents, you will know just what a leap in difficulty the new AS level (and full A-level) will be for that large number of less than brilliant linguists who nevertheless enjoy their language lessons. Students may be going from rote learned controlled assessments about their school to studying the Algerian war or the Franco regime in the target language.

The ALCAB panel argued, in a hopelessly optimistic fashion, that the revised GCSE will produce students better capable of coping with the new decoupled AS and A-levels. What do you think?

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