A-level exams to be made tougher

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The Independent Online

The Government will force sixth formers to sit more demanding A-level courses from this September in response to criticism that the exams are becoming too easy.

The Government will force sixth formers to sit more demanding A-level courses from this September in response to criticism that the exams are becoming too easy.

The move follows a review carried out by exam advisers into whether A-level standards have been maintained over the past 20 years. Although they concluded that the exams are as difficult as ever, they have pinpointed significant areas that need improving.

New syllabuses, which are due to go out to schools on 1 February, should also appease traditionalists by putting more emphasis on Britain's historical and literary heritage.

In history, A-level candidates will no longer be able to avoid the study of British history. All new history courses for the exams, which will be taken in 2002, must contain at least 15 per cent of British history. In English, where candidates may at present read only post-19th century literature if they wish, will in future have to answer questions on earlier texts, including one written before 1770.

From September, pupils will be encouraged to study four or five subjects in the first year of the sixth form, leading to a new AS exam. They may then choose to take on all or just some of these to A-level standard. Exams will be divided into six modulesto be taken throughout the course.

The changes being made by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority are part of A-level reforms ordered by the Government.

Some independent schools have said that the reforms will lower standards because all exams will be divided into modules: many maths and science exams are already modular. Two schools have opted to take the International Baccalaureat instead.

But Dr Nick Tate, the authority's chief executive, said: "We are maintaining and if anything strengthening A-level standards. Broadly, we believe that standards have stayed the same over the last 20 years, but in a number of subjects we have identified things which have slipped out of syllabuses which we feel should be there."

In history, there will be more emphasis on knowledge rather than skills. New syllabuses must involve the study of at least one 100-year period of history to stop teachers concentrating on learning one brief spell in the past rather than acquiring a broader knowledge.

In chemistry, candidates will need to know more about inorganic chemistry and chemical reactions. In English, there will be restrictions on examinations where candidates are allowed to take texts into the exam room - sixth formers will have to sit at least one "closed book" paper. And maths courses will put greater emphasis on algebra after university mathematicians complained that students arriving on undergraduate courses were poor at the subject.

Graphic calculators will be barred on some maths papers and scientific calculators, which cannot solve equations, plot graphs or store formulae will have to be used instead. At least one-quarter of the marks must come from papers where calculator use is restricted. Dictionaries will also be banned in foreign language exams.

All subjects will have a "synoptic" paper requiring knowledge of the entire course, to address the criticism that existing modular exams are not challenging enough.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said that while heads backed the new-styleexams, they were concerned that schools had not yet seen the syllabuses. "Schools have found it very difficult to tell parents what is happening," he said. "Parents' meetings about the sixth form happen in November and December and we didn't have the information."

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