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What you need to know about Ofqual’s ‘ABS’ response

Rishi Sunak’s “Advanced British Standard” risks an increase in the volume of exams, the continuation of “unregulated” international A-levels and requires “significant investment” to deliver change on an “unprecedented scale”, Ofqual has warned.

The exams regulator has issed its response to the government’s consultation on the new qualification, which ministers want to see replace A-levels and T-levels in around a decade.

Here’s what you need to know.

1. ‘Reform on an unprecedented scale’

Ofqual said achieving the ambitions of the ABS “requires change on a scale unprecedented in England in recent decades”.

“It envisages concurrent reform to curriculum, qualification content and structures, the qualifications market, and any associated technological reform.”

Reform on this scale “can be delivered successfully, but its scale and complexity require significant investment of resource across all parts of the education system”.

2. Start with compulsory maths and English

The regulator welcomed the “long-term reform timescale and the resourcing commitments set out in the consultation”, adding it was “important to sequence changes carefully”.

They suggested the government “consider a staged approach”, with compulsory maths and English introduced as a first step “initially focussing investment on the teacher workforce here, while contributing materially to the delivery of the longer-term vision of the ABS”.

3. Consider keeping A-level ‘brand’

They A-level brand is “well-regarded by qualification users”, with a trust built over 73 years, Ofqual said.

It is “likely that awarding organisations will continue to offer unregulated ‘international’ A-levels, even if the ABS means that A-levels cease to be regulated qualifications available in state schools”.

“These A-levels could be taken in UK independent schools and abroad. This could present a confidence or reputational challenge for the ABS.”

The regulator said the DfE “might consider” if the aims of the ABS could be met whilst “retaining the identity and branding of well-established, and more recently introduced qualifications”.

4. Pupils may not be ready for higher study

Ofqual also urged the DfE to consider the “wide range of achievement recognised at age 16”.

For example, students achieving grade 4 in GCSE mathematics “may not have studied much of the higher tier content that typically forms the basis for study at level 3, including in the existing core maths qualification”.

“Likewise, the curriculum content for English would need to be broad enough to meet a range of needs at this level, building on prior attainment and preparing students effectively for their next stages.”

5. ‘Likely’ to increase volume of exams

Ofqual warned increasing the volume of content while maintaining grade reliability “will likely increase the volume of assessment”.

This would create “challenges to address relating to exam timetabling, exam delivery in schools and colleges, and timely marking and issuing of results”.

Having more exams without “increasing clashes” for students would require a longer timetable, either encroaching on teaching time or the marking period.

And any increase in the volume of exam papers “would introduce additional risk to the delivery of results and could exacerbate existing pressures, such as examiner recruitment”.

6. ‘Major’ and ‘minor’ grading scale could ‘mislead’

The consultation proposed a single grading scale for “minors” and “majors” within the ABS for all routes. This “contrasts with the current established variety of grading approaches”, Ofqual warned.

Supporting parity across the routes “might be better achieved in ways other than a common grading scale”.

“Specifically, the direct comparability that a common grading scale appears to offer would be misleading and is likely to lead to unintended consequences.”

As the ABS is intended for a broader cohort than currently sit A-levels, the existing six-grade scale “would likely need to expand”, risking “unintended differences in grading profiles across the range, academic and occupational, of ABS components”.

7. ‘Pass-fail’ approach would lower achievement rate

The government has also set out several options for grading the overall ABS award.

The proposed lead option is a certificate or statement of achievement with minimum attainment conditions.

Making the ABS “pass-fail” would “lead to a lower number of students achieving the overall ABS than currently achieve level 3 qualifications, potentially impacting on, for example, progression opportunities post-18”.

There could also be a variation in pass rates by choice of subjects, which could “distort students’ subject choices to maximise their chances of an achieving an overall pass”.

The second option – a certificate or statement of achievement without any minimum attainment conditions – presents “few technical grading challenges”, Ofqual said.

The third option – an aggregate ABS score or grade – would “inevitably reduce the amount of information conveyed by that overall result compared with that conveyed by results for each major and minor”.

8. ‘Complex’ to use multiple exam boards…

If a number of exam boards become providers of ABS components, an individual student’s ABS “is likely to comprise elements from more than one AO”, something that would be “organisationally complex”.

“They may also require additional time prior to the release of results, with potential implications for when this could safely take place.”

9. …but could create ‘stronger market’

Exam boards would have to demonstrate “proven expertise in delivering such high stakes qualifications if they were to offer the ABS”.

“It is possible, and perhaps likely, that this would result in a consolidation of the number of awarding organisations offering the ABS when compared with those currently offering post-16 regulated level 3 qualifications.

“This could helpfully lead to a stronger market. It is unlikely that a single provider model would ensure sufficient capacity and resilience to deliver a high stakes qualification in the volumes that the ABS would involve.”

10. Warning over existing reforms

The ABS could also affect “current” reform programmes, such as the post-16 qualifications review and T-levels.

Some awarding organisations are developing qualifications “that might exist only relatively briefly before the ABS is introduced”.

Ofqual warned it was “critical that the ABS reform programme does not lead some awarding organisations to exit the market hastily, for example due to reducing demand for their qualifications or because they do not plan to offer ABS qualifications”.

“This would leave students in the short term with a reduced choice of courses and qualifications.”

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