September 2015 Reform

The New A level Curriculum at MPW - FAQs

  1. How are things changing?
  2. Why are things changing?
  3. What is the timetable for reforms?
  4. Why is it so complicated?
  5. Will the new A levels be harder than the unreformed exams?
  6. What are the implications for university entrance?
  7. What’s an EPQ and what are the benefits of taking one?
  8. What will MPW be doing and why?

1. How are things changing?

Fifteen years ago, the government introduced Curriculum 2000, which split the A level into two equally-weighted components: the AS and the A2. In the first year of the sixth form, students studied the AS and, in the second, the A2. The combined marks determined the A level grade. Students could, however, choose to study a subject for just the first year only, resulting in an AS qualification worth half of an A level. In the typical model students pursued four AS subjects and carried three into the second year. A minority opted to continue with all four or even take five subjects.

In September 2015 the system is changing again. The major change is the introduction of linear A levels. Students will be examined on all the material they have studied at the end of the second year.

The AS qualification will remain as a stand-alone qualification and will continue to be examinable at the end of the first year but its role and value will change. It will be ‘decoupled’ from the A level, meaning that it will not count towards the A level. Furthermore, it will be examined to a lower standard and will be worth only 40% of the A level in terms of UCAS points, not 50% as it has been in the past. The student who sits the AS in a particular subject and wishes to continue with that subject to the full A level will therefore be assessed afresh on the AS material again at the end of the second year and this time assessed to a higher standard.

2. Why are things changing?

The fundamental reason behind the change is a desire on the part of the government to raise standards. The key elements of the government’s reasoning are as follows:

  • Teaching time is lost as the Summer term of the lower sixth is typically given over to revision for the AS exams
  • The divided or ‘modularised’ nature of the old A level permits students to re-sit components of the course a number of times over the sixth form, leading to concerns of grade inflation and a ‘retake culture’
  • The fragmented nature of the courses prevents students gaining a desirable depth and breadth of understanding
  • Assessment depends too much on coursework, which further contributes to grade inflation because of the involvement of teachers and parents in its production; and
  • Universities are claiming that students are arriving underprepared for the demands of degree courses

The linear structure will give students the time to develop a more profound understanding of the material in their subjects and, through removing the opportunity for re-sits “within course”, provide a fairer means of assessing and discriminating between students.

3. What is the timetable for reforms?

These changes are being phased in between September 2015 and September 2017 in three waves. In September 2015 the first batch of linear or ‘reformed’ A levels will be introduced. Students will sit their A levels in these subjects in the Summer of 2017. The remaining two thirds will remain as ‘unreformed’ subjects, split into AS and A2 components as they are at present. In September 2016 the second wave of subjects will become linear and then the following year all subjects will be linear. The first A level examinations for subjects in these last two blocks will take place in the Summers of 2018 and 2019 respectively. Students enrolling in September 2015 and September 2016 will therefore typically be studying a mixture of reformed and unreformed A levels.

The table below shows which subjects will become linear when.



  Facilitating Subjects Other subjects
2015 English literature 
Art and design
Computer science
English language
English language and literature
2016 Geography 
Ancient languages 
Modern foreign languages
Drama and theatre 
Physical education
Religious studies
2017 Maths 
Further maths
All other subjects


4. Why is it so complicated?

These are significant changes which have no precedent in the recent history of education in England. Ever since a return to linearity was announced, Ofqual, the regulatory body charged with overseeing standards in public examinations, has repeatedly adjusted the way in which the reforms are to be introduced because of issues raised by government, universities, schools and colleges. The result is the complex, three-wave process which in effect leaves schools without a unified system of A levels until 2017.

On top of this, the changes are not fully set in stone because the Labour Party announced in 2014 that it was opposed to them and that some of the key reforms (such as the decoupling of AS and A level) would be overturned if they were to win the election in May 2015. To make matters even more complicated, Labour would not be able to restore the old system in time for the September 2015 start but only for the September 2016 start, thus raising the unwelcome possibility of just a single year-group pursuing the programme set out by the present Coalition government

5. Will the new A levels be harder than the unreformed exams?

It was never the intention that the new A level specifications would be significantly expanded in terms of content. However, the new A levels will, in some respects, be more challenging than for three reasons:

  • The linear structure means all the examinations have to be taken together at end of the second sixth-form year
  • The amount of non-exam assessment (coursework) has been reduced and in some cases removed altogether; and
  • There will be an increase in the mathematical content in science and social science A levels

Students will understandably be nervous about the implications for their grade prospects and for securing places at competitive universities. The good news, however, is that Ofqual has made it clear that grade boundaries will be adjusted to ensure that there are no significant changes to the number of students achieving particular grades under the new system compared with the old.

6. What are the implications for university entrance?

The universities have been involved in the reforms throughout. Students therefore need not worry that universities will be either ignorant of or hostile to the changes. Students should not think that they ought to choose reformed over unreformed A levels or vice versa in the belief that universities will have a preference. The message remains the same as it has always been: in the sixth form students should choose the subjects that they are good at and that interest them.  That will put them in the best position to apply for the course that they eventually want to pursue at university.

One important implication is that since AS levels will no longer be sat routinely during the Summer before the UCAS application period, it will mean that universities have less data to draw on when assessing students. Yet the loss of the AS will inevitably mean that admissions tutors will be scouring applications to look for any extra information they can use to determine the best applicants. Extra qualifications such as the EPQ, work experience and any other evidence of academic breadth will be of critical value.

7. What’s an EPQ and what are the benefits of taking one?

The EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) gives students an opportunity of developing their knowledge and study skills in an area that interests them. In light of the reforms there has been a huge upsurge in interest in it from schools and universities alike.

There are several different start dates available at MPW for the EPQ.  For those starting the EPQ in September of the lower-sixth year, students research and gradually put together their projects over the first two terms in readiness for submission in the Summer term. The EPQ’s distinctive feature is the degree of independent study that students take on. Each student has a supervisor who assesses the project through its various stages of development but the supervisor does not teach the student the content of the project. Rather, the EPQ is designed to encourage students to become the kinds of independent researchers and workers that universities – and, indeed, employers afterwards – want them to be.

A project typically takes the form of a 4,000 - 5,000 word essay on the student’s area of interest. It may, however, take other forms, ranging from a computer program, to a short story, to an engineered product. In conjunction with the final project, the student completes a log and gives a presentation which provides evidence of the study skills the student has learned as the project has progressed.

The benefits of an EPQ are many. It develops study skills needed at university; it gives students the chance to indulge their interests outside the confines of the A level syllabus; it results in a project that carries weight on a university application and a stand-alone qualification that is worth half of an A level in terms of UCAS points.

8. What will MPW be doing and why?

Central to MPW’s ethos is its commitment to designing bespoke academic programme around the individual student’s best interests. Students may choose to study any number and combination of subjects in an environment where they will receive excellent tuition and support. The curriculum changes will not affect our capacity to give students the opportunity of studying the courses that they want and that help them achieve their full potential.

In keeping with many schools in the independent sector, we have decided that we will be continuing with the 4/3 model as standard, with 3/3 by exception and EPQ as a strongly recommended extra, particularly for those on the 3/3 route. This means that most two-year A level students will study four subjects during their first year and ordinarily continue with three to the second year. Students may choose to sit external AS examinations at the end of the lower-sixth year but they will need to bear in mind that, contrary to what has occurred in the past, their grades must be declared on their UCAS form if they do so. If they do less well than they expected, this might work against them when applying to universities.

We believe that this standard model will be decidedly better in most cases than a 3/3 approach which would have students study all the subjects they start with right the way through both years.  Some of the reasons for this are given below.

Firstly, it gives students flexibility. It is not uncommon for students to find that a subject is less interesting or more difficult than they expected it to be. On the flip-side, the ‘fourth subject’ may turn out to be much more engaging than expected. Students also change their minds about their university plans and this will give them greater latitude to do so. In addition, students may find that they performed much less well than they thought in one of their subjects at the end of the first year. Having the ability to choose what to do in the second year is enormously advantageous.

Secondly, it adds breath to a student’s profile. The competition for places at good universities will remain as intense as ever and universities will still want to see as much evidence as possible of a student’s overall ability. Students will typically make reference to the breadth of their studies in the personal statements that they submit to UCAS. At MPW this breath will be delivered through the fourth AS, the EPQ or, in the case of the more able, both. Last but not least, MPW firmly believes that students ought to be encouraged to broaden their intellectual horizons as far as possible during their sixth-form years so as to instil a life-long love of knowledge and learning.