Linear A levels, love them or loathe them, are on their way back. A number of people are pointing out all the problems that may arise with their re-introduction, including some worried folk from universities who use the AS grade in determining whether to make an offer to a potential student or not. In schools some are worried about the decoupling of the AS especially those with smaller sixth forms, where teaching AS alongside A level might be continued. I have heard that some teachers will use the AS as a mock exam in year 12, which I believe will be a disaster, and others who want students to then make a choice as to whether to continue their studies in a particular discipline or not and think that by taking the AS they will be able to decide and have a qualification to their name if they give up; Ah well, they are not designed with this purpose in mind. If you must test, a little one, to keep the bureaucrats in your school happy, should suffice.
In today’s Times Richard Harman, the chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference and head at Uppingham School, complains about the way the changes have been introduced with a ‘mixed economy’ of old modular A levels and new linear ones running side by side. He is right, the introduction seems to have been rather rushed and will, I expect, lead to an amount of confusion, not least for parents trying to work out which exams are best so that they might advise their child. Harman is also right when he criticises the introduction of these exams at the same time as the changes being made at GCSE, he says it would have made more sense if the changes were introduced one after the other. Harman goes on to point out that for a good number of teachers teaching the new linear A levels this will be a totally new experience because they would never have taught them and in all likelihood never studied linear A levels either.
So here we have a perfect storm: chaos and inexperience, and who do we need to sort it all out? Older teachers, those who remember teaching the linear A levels, that’s who! They might have been banished to a dusty cobwebbed corner in the staff room, but dust them down and polish their brogues, their time has come! Hello Mr/Ms Chips!
Linear A level teaching is a fine art, it is not suited to a mock exam in year 12, at that time the students should still be pondering and wondering not deciding and revising. Great A level teaching is slow, covering a wide range of texts and/or ideas, in year 12 (or can we say lower sixth?) the teacher can go beyond the confines of the exam curriculum and teach lots of content, context, recommend wider reading, even link to subjects and ideas beyond the immediate discipline they are teaching. Pupils should have a whole year without worrying about an assessment, a blessed relief for one and all! Older teachers know the rhythms that are needed, they will know there is a moment when the penny will drop with the students, they will know not to panic when all in their classes seem lost. The secret of the linear A level is to ensure the students can cope with not knowing how it all works too soon. You need to teach in a way that keeps returning to parts of the exam rather than completing them for a module. Interleaving and revisiting is the way forward.
Whatever you do don’t teach the new A Levels in the same way as before, oh and listen to the older voices, for they are wise. And, some will agree with me, that despite all the worries, trials and tribulations the linear A level is a great improvement on the modular one, why? Because there is the opportunity for some proper educating to be done, trivium teaching no less.