The exam board AQA confirmed on 13 October 2016 that it is not continuing with the development of its specification for the new A level and AS level Statistics qualifications, which were due to be offered in England from September 2017. AQA was the only awarding organisation developing a new A level and AS level Statistics qualification separate from A level Mathematics, which includes a mandatory statistics component.
Here’s an outline of the story to date, and the RSS view –
What are the big changes being made to GCSEs, AS levels and A levels?
Since 2012, all GCSEs, AS levels and A levels in England have been going through a programme of review and reform. Existing qualifications are being phased out, with new GCSEs, AS and A levels being taught from September 2015, 2016, or 2017.
AS and A levels have been 'decoupled', meaning that AS levels become a stand-alone qualification, rather than a potential stepping-stone toward an A level. The expectation is that AS levels will decline in popularity.
What reforms are happening to GCSEs, A levels and AS levels?
In England, the Department for Education (DfE) sets out what content each A level and AS level must include. Ofqual, DfE’s body responsible for regulating qualifications, sets out the rules for how a qualification for that subject must be assessed.
Exam boards wanting to offer a GCSE, AS level or A level in one of these subjects in England must draw up a specification for their version of the qualification, and submit it to Ofqual for approval. If approved, the exam board is allowed to offer a qualification in that subject that can be called GCSE, AS level or A level.
The DfE and Ofqual have been undertaking a programme of reform of all GCSE, A level and AS level subjects and qualifications.
Every subject has been scrutinised to see whether GCSE, AS level or A levels in that subject should still be offered – with many subjects withdrawn at that stage.
For those subjects that passed that test, new subject content and assessment criteria were drawn up. The process for creating the content and criteria varied from subject to subject. For some subjects, the Department for Education asked The A-Level Content Advisory Board (ALCAB) to draw up content for consideration by the DfE. For others, exam boards were given the opportunity to lead (at their expense) the drafting of content, again for consideration by the DfE.
What GCSE, AS level and A level Statistics qualifications are being reformed?
OCR and AQA each offer AS level Statistics, with a total of around 1,300 students sitting their exams in 2015-2016. Only AQA offers a full A level in statistics, which 731 students sat in 2015/2016.
How did the process for GCSE Statistics work?
The government agreed, and three exam boards – AQA, OCR and Pearson – worked together to develop draft GCSE content and assessment guidelines. The DfE consulted on the draft content in September 2015.
We welcomed the retention and redevelopment of GCSE Statistics, and gave feedback to DfE on the subject content and to Ofqual on assessment in November 2015. The final subject content was approved and published by the DfE in February 2016.
Two exam boards, AQA and Pearson, have sought approval from Ofqual of qualification specifications that they would like to offer as GCSE Statistics for teaching from September 2017. Both have been sent comments on their first drafts and are expected to submit second drafts by 2 December 2016.
Where are we in the process for A level and AS level Statistics?
Ofqual consulted on whether AS and A level Statistics should both be withdrawn entirely as a subject.
We argued that A and AS level Statistics should continue. The government confirmed that A and AS level Statistics could continue in the reform process, and the exam boards AQA, OCR and Pearson worked together to develop content and assessment guidelines. The DfE consulted on the draft content in September 2015.
The draft content was focused on the application of statistics in a variety of disciplines, to prepare students for further study in quantitative disciplines. We welcomed this and encouraged the DfE to ensure the subject content fitted that aim well. We also gave feedback to Ofqual on assessment.
Other responses were not so positive, with the Mathematical Association, the ATM and the London Mathematical Society each arguing that there is no need for a separate A level Statistics, as statistics is included in A level Mathematics and in Core Maths, and as the existing qualifications have a relatively small number of students involved.
The government response noted that AS and A level in statistics “does offer another important pathway, especially for those students planning to go on to study social science degrees or statistics at undergraduate level”. The final subject content for A level and AS level Statistics were approved and published by the DfE in March 2016, which we welcomed.
OCR subsequently confirmed that it would not be seeking to develop a new AS level in Statistics.
AQA sought approval from Ofqual of a qualification to offer as A level Statistics for teaching from September 2017. They submitted a first draft to Ofqual, which was returned with comments. Ofqual expected AQA to submit a second draft by 2 December 2016.
Today, AQA announced that it would not be continuing with the development of A level Statistics. It states: 'We have concluded that a standalone A level Statistics does not provide a good fit with our wider AS and A-level Mathematics suite. Our new suite has been developed to include a much greater emphasis on statistics and we are confident that students’ needs in this area can be best met through our new A-level Mathematics.' Its letter to schools explains that the final examinations for the existing A level Statistics will be offered in 2018.
There are subject content specifications approved for A level and AS level Statistics, but no implementation is being developed for approval.
From September 2017, AS and A-level Statistics will exist in concept but not in practice.
What’s the RSS view?
We are very disappointed at the decision made by AQA to end development of A level Statistics.
We saw A level Statistics as a valuable and worthwhile pathway from 16-18, particularly for those students keen to develop applied statistical and data analysis skills in preparation for further study in quantitative subjects such as psychology, biology, economics, and quantitative social science degrees. We have promoted that view in our policy work, including in correspondence with Education Secretary Justine Greening, and in our contributions to Sir Adrian Smith’s review of mathematics post-16.
Understanding the whole statistics cycle – including experimental design, data collection, analysis and interpretation – is important for a wide range of subjects where real-world problem-solving is used. We were aware that in the short term, the numbers of schools offering A level Statistics may have been limited, but teachers and subject experts had welcomed the focus on statistical skills and relevance to subjects such as social science, biology and psychology. We would welcome greater clarity from AQA on its decision to end development at such a late stage. The evidence it drew on would be valuable to understand the landscape for these emerging qualifications.
If students’ choices from the age of sixteen to develop and maintain their quantitative skills are A level Mathematics, AS level Mathematics, Core Maths, or Functional Skills, it places greater emphasis on the need to ensure that these remaining pathways are highly effective and suitable for all students.
DfE needs to ensure that sufficient funding and support is available firstly to encourage and enable students to take one of these qualifications, and secondly to ensure that the teaching of statistics in A level subjects that involve handling of data is taught effectively. We hope that the Smith Review will be making recommendations in that regard.
While we recognise this is disappointing news for many in the statistics education community, we will continue to work with DfE and other key decision makers to ensure the position of statistics in the curriculum, both in mathematics and across other subjects, continues to be strengthened.