A-levels `biased against best'

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The Independent Online
NEW-STYLE "modular" A-levels are preventing bright pupils from showing their grasp of a subject, school inspectors said in a report yesterday.

Modular A-levels, in which students take exams over two years instead of at the end of the course, help more students to pass but do not allow the brightest to shine, they say.

The warning, in a report from the Office for Standards in Education, comes as the Government prepares to introduce modular A-levels for all courses. Baroness Blackstone, an Education minister, insisted that changes to the system would ensure inspectors' criticisms were met and that the present high standard of A-levels was maintained. She also emphasised that ministers had already accepted the report's main recommendation to retain traditional exams as an option.

The report says modular syllabuses are as hard as traditional ones, that they make students work harder and that, by exposing weaknesses sooner, they help students to reach a higher standard. Grading was found to be as reliable in modular courses as in traditional ones. But the inspectors felt the the new system was better suited to subjects such as maths and physics than to geography, French and business studies.

From September next year all A-levels will be modular, with students taking six exams over two years instead of two or three at the end of the course. Fifty per cent of courses are already modular and their popularity has risen rapidly. Three years ago the figure was only 20 per cent. The new arrangements will allow students to mix and match academic and vocational qualifications. Only one resit will be allowed and there will be a final module in all subjects in which students have to show that they have a grasp of the whole subject.

But inspectors remain sceptical. They say existing modules, designed to test whether students have an overview of the subject, are badly constructed and that they put bright students at a disadvantage. They are also concerned that some courses are fragmented because they are taught by too many teachers.

Ofsted says it backs the Government's efforts to encourage more students to take A-levels while maintaining standards. But Jim Rose, Ofsted's director of inspection, said: "It is a difficult trick to pull off, to increase access while not `dumbing down'. What we are trying to do is to make it crystal clear what the progression will be if we don't take it carefully enough."

David West. head of Ofsted's post-16 division, said: "We are worried that consumer demand for modular courses may lead to a withering on the vine for the traditional approach."

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