The poll finds that:

  • mental health has worsened among students (55%), with just 7% of teachers believing it has improved;
  • the reforms are in many cases negatively impacting on student engagement in education – only 10% believe it to be better now than under the old, legacy A-Levels; and
  • a significant proportion (37%) of teachers believe that the new courses less accurately reflect students’ ability, when compared with legacy A-Levels.

Where legacy A-Levels comprised exams, coursework and controlled assessments taken throughout the duration of the course, and AS-Levels counted for 50% of the qualification, the new reformed A-Levels differ significantly. AS-Levels no longer count toward them and many A-Level subjects have seen coursework significantly reduced or are now assessed solely by exams taken at the end of the course.

We asked members how, if at all, the assessment method for the reformed A-Levels has impacted on student mental health, when compared with legacy A-Levels. The respondents, totalling 300 who delivered the courses, indicated a majority view (55%) that mental health is getting worse, a further third believing it to be no better or worse than before, and just 7% believing it to be improved.

The assessment method of reformed A-Levels has made student mental health better

7%

Student mental health is about the same as before the reforms

32%

The assessment method of reformed A-Levels has made student mental health worse

55%

Don’t know

6%

When asked how well do reformed A-Levels reflect your student’s true ability, compared to legacy A-Levels, respondents indicated that although a majority (55%) believe they are better or not different, a significant minority (37%) believe them to be less accurate.

Better: reformed A-Levels reflect my students’ ability more accurately than legacy ones.

19%

About the same: Reformed A-Levels reflect students’ ability with the same accuracy as legacy

36%

Worse: Reformed A-Levels reflect my students’ ability less accurately than legacy ones

37%

N/A: I never taught the legacy A-Levels

5%

Don’t Know

4%

Finally, we asked how, if at all, are A-Level reforms impacting upon student engagement in education. Just one-in-ten (10%) felt it had increased, with a third believing it to have decreased.

The reforms have increased student engagement

10%

Student engagement is about the same as before the reforms

48%

The reforms have decreased student engagement

34%

Don’t know

8%

In individual comments responding to this final question, links were frequently made between a fall in levels of student engagement and the move away from AS levels and coursework. There were also comments concerning the exam content and its lack of relevance to the ‘real’ world.

From those who answered “decreased” to the final question, the following comments were made:

“Stressing students out. No time to enjoy the subject.”

“The amount of content is huge and students feel overwhelmed by it so they don’t feel as motivated to work hard and achieve their best.”

“The problem is that students no longer take an AS to see whether they like a subject/to maintain a diverse spread of subjects. It also means schools don’t tend to offer an option for students to switch out of a subject at the end of Y12 and still get a qualification.”

“Too wide a specification has made it a slog rather than giving students time to focus on what they are interested on.”

“So much to learn and it can seem impossible to revise it well enough to feel prepared for one exam period. Some have been demoralised and stressed about this.”

“[In] maths the 'big data set' is highly problematic. The intention is good but the execution is extremely poor, with students needing to memorise ridiculously trivial details to get questions right.”

“Students do not have the same motivation to study for their Year 12 year as there is no formal assessment in this year. This means that students too often put off their learning until Year 13 and as a result become much more time pressured and stressed.”

“A modular approach to A level maths allowed students to work at a pace they were comfortable with, and in the areas of Maths relevant to their later choices. The new ones do not.”

Of the “increased” comments, one highlights improved engagement in Geography, an A-Level which went against the trend by managing to get coursework added back in as a result of reform.

“Geography coursework allows independence and curiosity.”

But those who felt engagement had increased sometimes gave caveats, echoing certain concerns of the “decreased” group.

“Not in a good way, they are obsessed with the specification and slightly hysterical about the final assessment.”

“Students have to be very sure at the start of the course that they want an A level in that subject.”

Commenting on this survey, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“Any indication that mental health is increasing amongst young people should act as a wake-up call to Government. In our latest survey, 55% believe it is on the rise for students who have recently gone through A-Levels. This appears to be a consequence of recent changes to A levels, which have resulted in higher-stakes exams and a greater pressure to decide on subjects early, thanks to the side-lining of AS-Levels. This is leading to many students becoming disengaged, overwhelmed and stressed.

“We are moving away from a system which engages and encourages learners, and this is having damaging and worrying effects on the very people the system is supposed to prepare for the outside world. The NEU has long warned of ‘exam factories’ in schools and colleges. The question is when will Government step up to the challenge of eradicating this destructive culture.”

Editor’s Note

The online poll of 300 members of the National Education Union was conducted between 26 July – 2 August 2019.

ENDS

2019-119-NEU

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