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A-Levels and GCSEs Reform Effect on Qualifications Market

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In what ways have reforms to A levels and GCSEs, such as the introduction of linear exams and the de-coupling of AS Levels, affected the qualifications market

Linear programmes of learning are where students gain their qualification largely through exams at the end of their study rather than through a series of modules. This means that, unlike a modular system, separate elements cannot be retaken to gain a higher qualification if necessary. This has been interpreted in terms of ‘stretch and challenge’ within teaching and learning, in which higher order learning is developed within the existing framework of the subject. There is concern that this stretch and challenge within the delivery of teaching material may not be reflected in the assessments, and the fact that there are different organisations awarding qualifications may affect the extent to which this increased challenge for more able students can be achieved in practice. This concern rests largely on the possibility that the greater demands placed on students may result in greater variation in how these may be assessed and delivered for all students owing to the differences in exam boards’ syllabuses. This potentially opens up greater variation in the qualifications market.

There are differences between subjects in the extent to which such changes make the linear A-levels more challenging. In Geography, there is a perception that the removal of the coursework element of the learning experience makes the subject less challenging and that this reduces extent to which the essential fieldwork skills are taught. In GCSE, it has been argued that there is an increased focus on teaching and learning for the demands of the examination, and an increase in content leads to a loss of depth of study in some subjects such as English. Linear assessment was, however, seen as a way in which deeper and longer-lasting learning may be developed, particularly when related to subject-specific skills.

The decoupling of AS levels means that AS results may not count towards an ‘A’ level as they do at present. This means that AS level courses may be changed to be taught alongside the first year of A-levels, rather than contributing to the actual A-level course. This means that there is a need to provide separate syllabuses for the AS courses when compared to the A-level course, and there may be limited benefit to having AS and A-levels in the same subject. This increases the burden of developing different syllabuses for the same subject upon the qualifications, which means the qualifications market may respond through a decreased number of subjects being provided by the type of qualification bodies. However, this means that there is still an opportunity for students to undertake a range of subjects, permitting a balanced curriculum to be developed.

Several subjects have thus been removed from GCSE, AS and A-level and the content has been included in other subjects. It is currently too early to state whether the changes in the qualifications will substantively affect the makeup of the qualifications market, but the current research indicate that confidence in the validity of these qualifications is not as high as it might be. It is important to review the effect that these changes will have when the first qualifications are presented in 2016.

Question 2: How are awarding bodies responding to the rise in the number of schools choosing PreUs, IGCSEs and IB qualifications over GCSEs and A-levels?

A drawback with the current A-level and GCSE format is that it is elective, which can then lead to narrow programmes of study after the age of 16. There are also significant differences between the vocational and academic curriculum. Attempts to challenge this occurred in the 2000s with the provision of broader uptake of A-level programmes, where it was argued that students would take up to five subjects in their first year of study. Applied GCSEs were introduced in 2002, but rather than this being used to broaden individual students’ work, these changes were more frequently used to create an alternative curriculum for those who were seen as unable to follow a full GCSE programme. Not all alternative qualifications have shown an increased uptake: the number of schools opting for the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) peaked at about 230 schools in 2010 but has since declined, despite the fact that this is not matched by a decline in other countries. University recognition of IBDP programmes has been argued to prove a significant problem with its provision, with the fact that the recognition of A-levels has resulted in a decline.

The formation of the National Baccalaureate has been one response to the increased focus on these awarding mechanisms. This responds to the advantages that other qualifications have over traditional UK qualifications by providing an award that may be more internationally recognised and includes broader aspects to its format. For example, it can include personal development programmes and an extended project, as well as extending the study of Maths and English to 18 years. This might measure wider learning, and allow personal achievements alongside traditional subjects to be recognised.

However, there is an extent to which this challenges some of the wider advantages of the existing qualification system. The A-level system is considered relatively resilient because it has a close alignment with the single-honour system at university. Subject broadening would be argued to dilute subject content. The reforms in 2016 represent perhaps an approach to the broadening of content by ensuring that the benefits of A-levels are capitalised upon, rather than attempts to broaden their content, allowing for students to be better prepared for university. The adoption of the Extended Project Qualification or of the Critical Thinking module represents one way in which examination bodies have responded to these challenges. However, given the experience of modular A-levels, which tended to produce a broader education with limited depth, the focus seems to be upon ensuring that the benefits of A-levels are not diluted, while continuing to provide a choice of modules through AS levels in order to provide the benefits of a rigorous education.

Many schools migrating to IGCSEs have done so because of changes in the GCSE examinations in 2009. For example, these placed greater emphasis upon completing coursework in controlled conditions, which imposes a burden upon the schools, and many schools believed that IGCSEs presented a more rigorous assessment. Changes to the rigour of exams in the system of 2016 can be seen as a response to this perception.

Question 3: What has been the impact on the qualifications market of the Government’s decision to exclude IGCSEs from league tables?

The impact of the government’s decision to exclude IGCSEs from league tables has been problematic as the result is to condemn well-performing schools to the bottom of the league table. Few would argue that schools such as Westminster, Eton College or Harrow are poor-performing schools, but the result has been to show that their pupils did not reach the benchmark of A* to C grades. This undermines the impact of league tables and makes them a lower indication of the quality of an institution. It is also unlikely to encourage such schools to return to the state-approved national qualification market. This then makes the extent to which the league tables can be trusted questionable. This also potentially gives some of the more prominent independent schools an advantage because the reputation of many of the most famous schools is given precedence over the league tables, and the fact that the league tables no longer reflect this difference is well known. For the less well-known independent schools, this may be an advantage in one sense because a mediocre placing will not be noted by the changes in the league tables, but this may also mean that some observers will interpret their position as actually reflecting their true place.

The qualifications market is thus undermined by the lack of clarity in comparable results. Given that State schools do not follow IGCSEs, the result is to accentuate the differences between state and independent schools. This undermines the extent to which parents may compare the performances of different schools according to the league tables. The fact that a number of independent schools continue to support IGCSEs, including the most high-performing schools in the country, means that unless there is a large-scale abandonment of the IGCSE programme, then there will continue to be a two-tier system of results, and schools tend not to move at whim, and particularly if they are not substantively suffering from the impact of the change. This may mean that alternative publications will need to be created that compare the results of IGCSEs with the results of the GCSE league tables, and essentially re-insert these schools into the system.

The removal of IGCSEs from the league tables has essentially backfired in this case because it has not devalued the IGCSE, nor drawn attention to the GCSE as a more rigorous form of study. Indeed, the reason that is commonly given for independent schools that follow IGCSEs is the greater choice it gives them, and the more rigorous approach it offers to learning. This means that the qualifications market takes note of these differences and there are thus limited effects that can take place as a result of this change. This would not be the case were it not for the fact that some of the most prominent supporters of IGCSE are well-known to be excellent schools, and therefore the league tables make it very difficult to distinguish between a lesser-known but well-performing school and a poorly performing school. Either the schools should be excluded altogether or a separate table should be provided for this category.

Question 4: What steps can be taken to overcome the challenges standing in the way of new providers entering the exams market, such as the perceived quality of exam boards, identified by Ofqual?

Schools tend to choose the exam board largely on the perceived quality of the syllabus provided by the exam board, rather than the price. The decision to select an exam board is usually made by the head teacher of a subject who is usually not involved in the financial planning of the school. Schools are less likely to switch based on price without ascertaining that the quality of the exam board is high enough, and in order to do this a history of the examination board provision is required.

The barriers to entry are high because of the non-negligible fixed sunk costs: firstly, products need to be adapted to specifications and regulatory compliance that is relatively high. Secondly, there would need to be an extensive investment in reputation in order to encourage the naturally-risk-averse schools to choose the exam board. There are also high costs associated with the possibility that something may go wrong. This means that competition between exam boards is periodic, and thus takes place at breaking points in the market, such as where there is a change in specification, or where a serious error by one exam board causes school to choose another.

There are some dangers in allowing competition on quality rather than price, as should syllabuses be offered that focus on helping students to pass, a scenario known as the ‘race to the bottom’ may develop. Ofqual’s intervention in the market would reduce the risk that this poses. There is no likelihood that there would be competition based on price in the near future, although the fact that most schools believe that the existing scenario offers reasonable value for money may suggest that examination boards will not wish to increase prices significantly. The most likely outcome is that there may be competition created on the variety provided by the syllabus, and therefore there may be room for alternatives that are based upon the interests and desires of different heads of department. Furthermore, if the market remains significantly regulated, then this may facilitate market sharing between boards and reduce the possibility of new entrants into the exam market, and this would also reduce the likelihood of new entrants. However, differentiation in the provision of exam boards will provide the opportunity for new entrants to attract schools. This would be less likely to happen if the subject content were closely regulated as syllabuses would need to be relatively similar between examination boards.

As such, limited steps may be taken to overcome the entrance of new examination boards to the qualification markets while the provision of syllabuses remains regulated. The startup costs for a new board would appear to be too costly; the fact that schools rarely change syllabus, and the fact that they judge exam boards on the quality of the service provision relating to their previous performance in the field, may undermine this possibility. Allowing greater variation in the type of syllabus provided would seem the only way in which more diversity in products may be provided, and this would seem to be the most likely way in which the market may be developed.

Question 5: Would introducing a single awarding body per qualification, as suggested by the Government, address concerns that competition is affecting the quality of exams? What other options should be considered?

There are a number of advantages to the use of a variety of exam boards. The choice that this gives the schools in terms of the syllabus used is a significant benefit. The fact that this spreads the risk between different boards is also an advantage for any problems that may arise. The existence of a close regulation and monitoring between different boards allows there to be a close parity between awarding bodies, and this helps allow the schools to have choice in the type of exams they undertake, while still allowing for there to be variation and choice in how they do so. Each exam board also holds an incentive to raise the quality of the service they provide because a failure to do so results in a loss of business.

The problem with regulation concerning the syllabus is that to an extent this disrupts the extent to which competition may be seen between exam boards. It can be seen as an inefficient method, given the similarities across subjects offered between different exam boards. For example, while a wide range of set texts are mandated by the government, there are limited possibilities for qualifications to alter their delivery. This means that there is an extent to which the provision of different qualifications can involve essentially providing the same qualification across different exam boards without affecting the product provided. The result is for exam boards to compete on style, and it is questionable as to how much difference in content may be provided.

Despite this, the existing model is preferred and enjoyed by schools that believe that choice is provided to a sufficient extent. In particular, there is the extent to which schools may shift examination board should there be a real or perceived problem with the marking system. Likewise, the differences in how the syllabus is provided and the type of examinations offered, while being of the same standard, may offer alternatives that correspond more closely to the school’s own preferences.

Concerns that there may be competition that affects the quality of exams may be challenged to an extent. Moderation may undermine the extent to which exams are different between examination boards. Competition is largely on the provision of syllabus content and quality and does not appear to function on the basis of examination quality. Furthermore, there seems to be minimal evidence that schools adopt the examination board simply on the basis of the simplicity of examinations or to better their chances.

Among other choices that might be considered is for exams to be marked centrally in order to address concerns over the possibility that there may be variation. However, this would restrict the individual exam board’s choice to move board should they dispute a marking method or result. Secondly, the marking schemes between examination boards may be externally moderated and set in order to provide a comparable standard between boards. However, a case may be made for some core subjects to be centralised, as in some areas, such as Mathematics and English, there is limited choice between the subjects set between boards, and some of the syllabuses are sufficiently similar for there to be a strong imperative towards a central board. This argument may not be so persuasive in other subjects because there is less centralisation.

Question 6: What impact has the new process for endorsing learning resources introduced last year had on the public confidence in endorsement arrangements for learning materials?

The concerns that affected the existing system for the endorsement of learning resources include a range of issues. In particular, there is concern regarding the extent to which the existing resources written by examiners may compromise the predictability and confidentiality of assessments.. Therefore, the new method is intended to support the learning and teaching of a specific qualification without impinging negatively upon the standards of the qualification. Awarding organisations must publish the criteria they use in order to manage the risks of the qualification standards. This may mean that any real or perceived conflicts of interest are being managed effectively.

In any case, students’ reliance upon examiner-authored resources may prove restrictive, and where textbooks are associated with these authors, schools are more likely to buy such textbooks. The current ruling does not exclude those who write such textbooks and those who publish them. Senior examiners may still publish such textbooks, and therefore the endorsement regulations have not reduced this. The Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education, for example, argues that the new regulations do not go far enough, and that examiner-authored textbooks continue to be a problem in Mathematics in particular.

To an extent, this comment can be supported: the limitations to the reform are that it does not stop endorsements being affixed to the textbook or publication, but simply makes the procedure for doing so more transparent. Therefore, examiners may still publish such textbooks, and such textbooks may even identify the book as being written by the examiner, even if the texts are not endorsed by the examination board. Even if such endorsement does not take place, then it would be relatively simple for the schools to identify the examiner as the author of the textbooks. Likewise, the publication of transparent criteria by the examination board does not necessarily restrict the extent to which endorsement can take place, but simply offers information on the procedure used to make such decisions.

Given that the new policy is relatively recent, there has been limited response to its effect in practical terms. It takes a certain period before the uses of textbooks endorsed under the new scheme for the purposes of a specific examination can be recorded. Furthermore, for many schools, the aim is to prepare their students for examination as closely as possible, and thus they will likely continue to purchase textbooks authored by those who work closely with the regulatory system. Public opposition to the system has tended to focus on this factor, and given that the changes to the regulatory system do not do enough to address this issue, it is unlikely that public opinion will be substantively mollified by the changes. There are thus two issues present: the question of how far texts written by those closely involved in the examination process should be used for preparation, and the reasons used by examination boards to endorse learning materials. The changes in the endorsement procedures only affect the latter of these issues, whereas public opinion is largely concerned with the former.


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