Cambridge’s stance on AS makes sense

Only last week I wrote about how the changes to AS and A Level would lead to uncertainty in the university admissions process and how universities would be losing key indicators of student ability with the scrapping of AS Levels in their current format. It is therefore no surprise to me to hear that a leading institution, Cambridge, have responded to that uncertainty in the form of a letter sent out last week to all schools and colleges in the UK, strongly advising them to retain the qualification, rather than ditching it as some schools are threatening to do.

Cambridge said that they continue to view AS Levels as ‘robust indicators’ of student ability, putting those pupils who take them at an advantage as they provide a more accurate representation of student ability than GCSEs and teacher predictions. They are, they say, of ‘significant educational benefit’. My concerns about the uncertainty caused by the government’s changes have been somewhat addressed by Cambridge’s intervention and it couldn’t have come at a more pertinent time where clarity and conviction was sorely lacking.

Back in October I spoke at a Sixth Form Options Evening to parents and girls in our current Year 11 about how we were planning to retain the AS and co-teach in their Sixth Form. This stemmed from the fact that at Headington we believe wholeheartedly in choice. I feel that it is really important that girls can chose four subjects and keep their final options open. I have known many students who have started on a particular A Level grouping, with an additional subject as an additional AS, only to choose to study their AS subject at university.

Expecting students to pin down their choices in Year 11 seems an unnecessary step and so this year we had always planned to prepare all the girls for AS exams in Year 12 in all subjects, knowing that in some subjects their marks would not count towards the final exams. I told parents and girls that to keep options open and to have a halfway mark in the sand would be an advantage. The letter from Cambridge has supported this view and key points within it really resonate with what I said then.

Those who are undecided may feel that Cambridge’s declaration is premature. I feel that in fact it could easily have been made much earlier. We work in a system that is constantly evolving and we do not have the luxury of delaying key decisions, especially when the issues directly affect students now. While the system is in flux, there are already too many gaps and uncertainties as our girls make decisions about Sixth Form options. With so much at stake for our girls’ futures, we need to tell them now what their options are in Sixth Form and to be clear and bold about our intentions. Sitting on the fence is simply not an option here.

Cambridge’s declaration is certainly sending more shockwaves through a system that is already in flux. The Grammar School Heads’ Association felt that the university’s intervention would penalise state schools, whilst voices in the independent sector feel that Cambridge are throwing a spanner in the works and are strongly opposed to their declaration. As a Head I aim to be proactive and to listen to others as the education landscape changes under our feet. No one can know what the long term future of the AS will be and once all the curriculum changes have taken their course we may need to look again at AS in our Sixth Form. However, I am very comfortable throwing my support behind the qualities that the AS brings to the table at present. What for me is at the heart of this debate is that, for this current cohort, there won’t be a second chance.

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