Thursday, 27 March 2014

A level reforms – what do they mean for distance learners?

Distance Learning Explained.jpg

There has been a lot of commotion recently about reforms to general education. The focus has been on 16-19 year olds and how this will affect mainstream schools, but what about the non-traditional learners?

The learner profile of NEC students is much different to that of a mainstream school or college. The learner could be any age, for example our youngest learner is 9 and our eldest is 93. Learners are often unable to study at a mainstream institution, which is why they turn to distance learning.

We want to see a change in thinking so that those who are making the big decisions about education consider that it’s not just about those studying full time. Widening participation reaches beyond the walls of schools and colleges, and not recognising this risks limiting opportunities for those that need them the most.

What is changing with A levels?

Lots. Ofqual are due to finalise details of the changes imminently, but we know that specifications for all subjects are being reviewed, and some are planned for change from first teaching September 2015. The rest are planned for the following year. Included in the first phase are:

  • English Language
  • English Literature
  • English Language and Literature
  • Biology
  • History
  • Geography
  • Psychology
  • Sociology
  • Business studies
  • Economics

These changes are designed to strike a better balance between exam and non-exam assessments, meaning that non-exam assessments are only used where needed to assess essential skills. Sciences, for example, are likely to have the practical elements removed from the overall A level grade and reported separately. Geography is also facing the reintroduction of the field-work element.

Will the structure of A levels change too?

Yes. The current proposal means the return of the full A level, and the decoupling of the AS level. This means that rather than taking your exams across two sittings, as is currently the case, all exams will be sat at the end of the programme.

Under current proposals, the AS level will still exist but will not form part of an A level. The AS will be a standalone qualification that is hoped will be co-teachable alongside the first year of A level.

What does this mean for learners?

NEC CEO Ros Morpeth wrote in TES FE Opinion earlier this week, “The proposal to decouple AS levels from A levels has provoked a flurry of outrage from universities, schools, colleges and awarding bodies. Under the current proposals, scheduled to be introduced in 2015, AS-level results (achieved in one year) will no longer count towards the final A level at the end of two years.”

“Universities argue that this will mess up their admissions system as the AS level is a much better predictor of final A level grades than teachers’ "guesstimates", whilst teachers are concerned about removing flexibility and narrowing students’ options.”

“But among the cacophony of voices there is one that has got lost – that of the distance learning student. At the National Extension College we have around 1800 learners on A and AS level courses, but there are many more in the UK and worldwide studying through other organisations.”

“They include prisoners, people in the armed services, busy parents, people with disabilities, employers and employees with irregular working patterns and others for whom attending classes in schools or colleges is not an option. My concern is that by removing AS levels from the credit accumulation and transfer scheme (known as CATS) all the good practice built up in the design, delivery and assessment of AS levels will be lost and one of the building blocks for lifelong learning will be removed.”

Many NEC students choose distance learning as an option because they need a degree of flexibility. Being able to focus on the AS level before embarking on a full A level is more manageable for someone who has other commitments or a medical condition that prevents them from studying in the traditional way. It also allows learners to keep their options open.

Cost is another factor to consider. Exam fees can mount up for some subjects, and being able to spread this cost across AS exams and A levels exams is a much more manageable financial commitment for non-mainstream learners who have to fund their own exam places.

Liz Shiner, a tutor for NEC, told us, “Anyone involved in open learning knows how valuable the flexibility, availability and sheer satisfaction can be for people of all ages and in all conditions in life, to study in this way. How do I know? The students tell us!”

“Here's a recent extract from an e-mail sent by an NEC student, living in Italy on an A level course. He said: 'I have found the experience educational, accessible and highly enjoyable.'”

Can I still enrol on an A level now?

Yes. The current A levels are still available to enrol on, and with NEC you can enrol at any time of the year. When the changes come into place, your A level will not be de-valued in any way, and you can still take exams right up until 2016 for some subjects, and 2017 for the rest. We will tell you when you enrol how much time you have to complete the course.

Will NEC still offer A levels after these changes?

Yes, of course! We may not agree with de-coupling the A level but we still believe in opening up access, and A levels continue to be a vital qualification in their own right and an entry qualification to higher education and professional training.

We will use the changes in the specifications as an opportunity to enhance our services to ensure that we are delivering A levels in the best possible way. Our students are people who need a second chance, and they deserve the best possible support to help them overcome the obstacles they face.

To find out more about NEC and our wide range of flexible distance learning courses, visit
our website or get in touch and speak to our team.

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