The linear A level system was introduced in the early 1950s, replacing the Higher School Certificate, and allowing students to specialise in single subjects of their choice at a higher level. The opportunities to retake those single subjects did not seem overly restrictive at the time, but in 1989 the AS was introduced, and for 15 years or so students seemed to have the freedom to retake modules to improve their grades almost without limit. Now, as we return to a linear A level system, we look at how circumstances have changed, and the options students have.
On one hand the system of resitting A levels has been criticised for contributing to the lowering of the A level standard (‘the gold standard’) concentrating on examination results, not on education. On the other hand, it is seen as a much-needed second chance for those who have failed, for whatever reason, to achieve the grade they wanted. The almost unlimited opportunity to retake A levels that has previously been available to students sits uncomfortably amidst the annual discussion about grade inflation, with some also arguing that now that universities have lifted the cap off student numbers, retaking is no longer required to achieve a place at university.
However, with results currently being published and digested, the subject of A level retakes is unlikely to be far from the minds of some students. For those students with high expectations, who have significantly fallen short of their predictions, there are compelling arguments for retaking. For those who feel that they have not done themselves justice or reached their full potential, another attempt may give them the peace of mind they need, irrespective of university offers. They may have been going through personal problems at the time they sat the A levels, with the result that the excellent work they did throughout the year was not reflected in their final scripts. They may also feel that achieving better grades would enable them to start at university with a firmer foothold on relevant subjects.
From a university admissions perspective, the level of competition for some subjects or institutions remains extremely high, particularly for top-ranking universities or for highly competitive professional degrees such as those in Medicine. This means that despite the cap, students will still need to achieve the best grades to secure a place. What is more, they may not want to have to resort to their insurance choice, or to finding university places through the Clearing process, quite possibly settling for degrees in which they have little genuine interest. Retaking can keep options open and boost a student’s confidence.
Of course, the recent change in A levels from a modular to linear structure means the opportunities for retakes are now more limited than they were, and students no longer have the degree of freedom over which individual modules to retake and when to retake them.
Once the new system is universally rolled out, all units of assessment for the final A level will be taken at end of the second year, although students can still take AS level examinations at end of first year; AS levels are now entirely free-standing, and a student’s AS level result does not contribute to the final A level. Furthermore, there is no January sitting, so students will only be able to retake AS or A levels in the summer session. This reduced availability for retakes does not mean students have no options; simply that it is now all the more important for students to do better second time round.
Many students find that they need extra support as they prepare for retakes – and an individualised plan is crucial. Experience has taught that simply going over the work again is not necessarily the answer. Depending on time, it can even be worthwhile changing one of the optional topics (a set text, for example), or even the examination board. This may sound risky, but the results can be astonishing. Indeed something needs to happen the second time around, and fresh material can often keep at bay the sense of enervation. However, although sometimes difficult to have, a detailed and honest discussion with the student about motivation can reveal options and opportunities which would never have been realised otherwise. Once a clear plan is formed, confidence can be restored and the student can move forward.
Retaking really can be a huge success if a student approaches the task with the right attitude and understanding. An illustration of this is from the story of a recent student at Greene’s:
Charlotte was disappointed with her A level results from school, achieving B, D, E, in subjects which really did not suit her or her interests. She found it difficult to work by herself and having been predicted high grades, came to Greene’s very dispirited.
We spent some time discussing with Charlotte where she thought her problems lay, with an honest assessment of her academic interests. We then designed a one year course of new A level choices more suited to her strengths and ambitions, and appointed her a Personal Tutor to guide her and develop her independent learning skills. After completing her A level course of Mathematics, Further Mathematics and Psychology, and receiving conditional offers from all her preferred university choices, Charlotte achieved A level results of A, A, A.
Charlotte’s mother wrote to us: “Thank you for what Greene’s has done for Charlotte. In the year she has grown in confidence and personality, and I am sure this is due mainly to the learning process provided by you. You confidently saw what she ought to do, and then provided excellent tutors, who, by their manner and ability showed Charlotte that she was capable of anything …”
We see many students in Charlotte’s position, and stories not dissimilar to this are fairly frequent. We are happy to discuss options with schools and students at any time. Please contact us.