Pedagogical Analysis of A Level Syllabi

From August 2001 to September 2001
Project Leader(s): Jill Clark, Elaine Hall
Staff: Peter Fisher, Cheryl Mackay, Sally Tavener, David Stancliffe,
Contact: Jill Clark
Sponsors: LECG (contracted by Edexcel)

Introduction The research was funded by LECG (contracted by Edexcel) and ended in 2002. The research team was led by Jill Clark and Elaine Hall and involved several members of staff from the School of Education, including Cheryl Mackay and David Stancliffe. This research was conducted by a team of subject specialists in the School of Education, Communication and Language Sciences, University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Five subjects were selected by DfEE/Edexcel across the three awarding bodies (OCR, Edexcel and AQA): • English Literature • History • French • Mathematics • Physics. Research Paradigm This form of documentary analysis is heavily dependent upon the pre-existing expertise of the research team, who were able to bring their subject specialist knowledge to the task of exploring the differences between the A levels offered by different exam boards. Close reading of the syllabus documentation was supported analytically by team meetings to generate agreed criteria for significant differences in provision, cognitive challenge and candidate choice. The Principal Investigators provided an overview and synthesis of each subject’s findings. Research Methodology This research was essentially a desk-based review of materials. The team based their analysis on the subject specifications which are freely available on the awarding bodies’ web sites. We looked at assessment specifications but not at supporting materials, nor at the range of additional support provided by some boards to partner centres. Our analysis of the syllabi focused on the following key issues: • The objective differences between the syllabi themselves • The approach taken by each examining board to candidate choices • Differences in interpretation by awarding bodies • Policy or other emphasis distinctive to particular awarding bodies. Our analysis was based on the following themes: Structure of the qualifications. The guidance from QCA on the development of Curriculum 2000 appears to have produced high levels of similarity between examining boards in terms of Aims, Assessment Objectives and Key Skills, although there are some subject-specific differences. The most crucial differences arise from the approaches that awarding bodies have taken to the new specifications: for example the extent to which key skills have been embedded in to content. Our analysis suggests that, on the whole, differences exist at the level of interpreting fine detail. Cognitive challenge. We found no evidence of significant difference in cognitive challenge between examining boards. We would add the caveat that, in order to properly assess this, comparisons would have to made between the actual examinations set in 2001 (for AS) and 2002 (A2), the mark schemes which accompany them and awarding bodies’ grading policies in action. Candidate Choice. The nature of different subjects necessarily dictates the extent to which candidate choice can operate. Within subjects, there is a degree of disparity: • Mathematics and Physics offer relatively little candidate choice, regardless of awarding body. The degree of similarity in Physics is, in part, obscured by the differences in module titles but our analysis has revealed that the content is essentially the same. • In English Literature and History, levels of candidate choice offered by each exam board vary between units but overall (particularly with the use of synoptic units) the levels of candidate choice are broadly similar. • In French, there has been significant innovation by Edexcel in the creation of their ‘learning pathways’ through the specifications, which are designed to support and benefit candidates with different goals and career trajectories. There are new, optional, elements within units which require candidates to use language skills in ways which are more directly applicable to the world outside academia.


Dr Jill Clark
Senior Research Associate and Business Development Director for the Research Centre for Learning and Teaching