Last week’s A level results day marked a number of milestones. Notably, this was the first year that students in England sat linear (also referred to as ‘tougher’) A levels; students studying one of the already-reformed A level subjects sat courses with little, or in most cases no, coursework and a final exam testing their knowledge of both years of the course rather than only the final year. There was plenty of analysis surrounding this – the headlines informed us that the reforms may have played a part in boys overtaking girls in top grades and that there was a drop in attainment for those subjects which have already been reformed, which includes all three sciences.
Missing from much of this analysis was any student opinion of these reforms – what did the young people affected by these changes think of them? Last winter, as part of a data collection cycle for the ASPIRES 2 study, we interviewed 51 Year 13 students from around the country ahead of their A level exams. We asked these students, and some of their parents, about their schooling and future plans. Although the A level reforms were not a planned interview topic, 10 of these students, and a small number of their parents, shared their thoughts about the changes – mostly in response to a question about the challenges faced by young people today.
In this blogpost we share the emerging themes from these conversations, in order to shed light on student opinion of these part-introduced reforms. However, please note that due to the small sample size we recommend more in-depth research into this topic before drawing meaningful conclusions.
As the blog’s title (a quote from one of our students) indicates, many students felt pressured by the new reforms. The impact of this pressure upon mental health was not unexpected by some education experts; the “hastily reformed curriculum… created unnecessary stress and concern for pupils and teachers alike” said Rosamund McNeil from the National Union of Teachers ahead of last week’s results day.
The “memory game”
Some students disliked that the new linear courses required them to remember additional material for their A level exams. It’s “almost a memory game” said one student, Victoria1 (studying A level Maths, Politics, Design & Technology), who said that it felt like students were now “expected to recite something word for word… From two years ago, rather than just learn it, do it, learn it and then it would like stay there.” Worryingly, this was also cited as a reason to drop certain subjects, especially those seen as particularly content-based. For example, Louise (A level Psychology, Dance, Combined English) used the reforms as a justification for dropping Biology, her only STEM subject; “Um, I am pleased I dropped it, not necessarily because I didn’t enjoy it… there was just so much, but it was more, the fact was like how A levels are now structured – so I did all my AS stuff, did my AS exams, but for this year I’d have to remember everything from last year and then a whole new set of stuff.”
Another student added that this requirement to remember additional information may lead to decreased enthusiasm for, or interest in, some subjects; “I think because [the AS and A2 exams] have been stuck together, people are just losing focus over time… that’s definitely an issue. Like I know it’s definitely hard to stay motivated with what you’re doing” said Neb (A level Physics, Maths, Further Maths).
No room for mistakes
The reforms also meant that some students felt pressure not to ‘make a mistake’ in choosing or taking their A level options, as many thought that the reforms made it more difficult to drop, change or retake options. Two students we spoke to raised concerns that the reforms limited their access to the possibility of retaking exams, which will now only be available once, instead of twice, a year; “I prefer the old system where we did the AS papers and they counted towards the A2 and you could retake them” said Preeti (A level Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Maths). “There’s just so much stuff to remember, there’s so much content and you just feel so pressured to remember everything, and you get stressed out… if [students] did want to like resit they’d have to redo the whole year, so it’s a lot” said Celina1 (A level Psychology, Sociology, History), who was also worried that the A level changes meant that no suitable past papers were available to her.
Reforms come with uncertainty
Being the first cohort to experience these reforms was also something that played on the minds of the students and parents we spoke to; “changing the A Levels to being linear, it’s kind of put my year group in a slightly difficult situation” said Bethany2 (A level English Literature, Sociology, Applied ICT). This was seen not only from the perspective of students but also teachers; “the teachers haven’t really taught this type of course before” said Bethany2, something echoed by one student’s parent who called the changes “disruptive” and thought this year’s students had been put at a disadvantage as the first year group to experience the changes.
Strikingly, most students who raised the topic of the new A level curriculum with us expressed views that this year’s reforms contributed to the exam pressure they were already under. Whether this is something which will lessen as the reforms continue to be rolled out over the coming years remains to be seen. In any case, insights from our research suggest that the government, schools and parents must be aware that young people are concerned that the new A level curriculum places unwelcome additional pressure on students.
By Emily MacLeod, Research Officer on the ASPIRES 2 Project
 This was the fifth round of interviews with this cohort. The ASPIRES teams first started speaking to these young people and their parents when they were 10. For more information about, and findings from, this longitudinal project please visit: ucl.ac.uk/ioe-aspires
 Pseudonyms are used throughout, to protect the identity of all interview participants.