A-Level reform: a diet too heavy for students

Sixth-form studies have broadened, but at a high cost
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The new sixth-form curriculum introduced to schools last September was heralded as the widening and broadening of opportunity for all. New courses were to end the narrowness of A-level and introduce a system of vocational exams that would be held in the same esteem as its illustrious academic equivalent. It was to be the biggest reform of A-levels in the 50 years since the exam was introduced.

The new sixth-form curriculum introduced to schools last September was heralded as the widening and broadening of opportunity for all. New courses were to end the narrowness of A-level and introduce a system of vocational exams that would be held in the same esteem as its illustrious academic equivalent. It was to be the biggest reform of A-levels in the 50 years since the exam was introduced.

You could not fault the concept. Sixth-formers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland have had one of the most restricted learning diets in the western world. The problem was no one worked out whether the students could cope with the vastly increased workload, and many of them struggled – some horribly.

Sixth formers now beginning their holidays from school have earned their time off after what has been, for some, a nightmare of a year. Last month, Estelle Morris, the incoming Education Secretary, ordered a review of the new post-16 qualification system by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA).

The emergency report is now out and there are to be immediate changes in the way AS-levels are handled to reduce the pressure on students. Students will be discouraged from taking AS-exams before the end of the first year in the sixth form and they will be reminded that they could wait until the second year of the sixth form to take them. The exam timetable is to be restructured, too, so students will take AS subjects in one sitting rather than on different days.

Announcing the changes, Estelle Morris, apologised to students and teachers for the problems the new exam had created: "All new exams take time to bed in, but the new AS has had more than its fair share of problems. I regret the extra stresses that have been put on students and their teachers," she said.

Under the old system of A-levels, a bright student would take three A-levels over a two-year course. The brightest took four or five. Last September all this was changed. A new system was intro-duced, with AS (Advanced Subsidiary) levels studied in the first year of the sixth form, and A2-levels studied for the second year. AS-levels were meant to be harder than GCSE, but not as hard as A2s, and A2s were promoted as being harder than A-level so that A-level standards would not be compromised.

At the same time, vocational qualifications of A-level standard called AVCEs (Advanced Vocational Certificates of Education) were introduced. Key skills courses were also on offer in areas such as use of numbers, communication and information technology, but these were not compulsory.

The Government hoped students would take five mixed arts and science AS-levels in the first year dropping down to three – or more – A2-levels in the second year. But all these qualifications were taught to A-level standard so in one fell swoop a typically bright sixth former was being asked to take on the workload of the very bright.

It didn't work according to plan. To begin with, there wasn't that much mixing of science and arts. Students opted for subjects new to them after GCSE, such as psychology, or for subjects with a reputation for being easier, and most students opted for four subjects rather than five.

Classes were larger because more students were studying more subjects, yet many students need the extra support available in the smaller traditional A-level groups as they make the transition from GCSE to the much tougher A-level standard.

Even before Christmas, students were pleading with their teachers to be allowed to drop subjects. Stories of distraught teenagers working 60-hour weeks going under with stress and depression began to trickle out early in the new year.

At the same time, there were problems with the vocational courses. Nine out of 10 of the students sitting the first modules in some subjects in January failed. All six modules of these new courses were examined at the same level as a traditional A-level and this meant that students taking the vocational qualifications were being examined at full A-level standard only one term into their course.

Vocational students have traditionally had weaker GCSE grades than students taking academic courses. The irony was that they were being given a harder time than AS-level students, whose first modular exams were not set at full A-level standard to break them into the system gently.

The exam boards blamed the schools for putting the candidates in too early for modules that didn't need to be examined until the second year of the sixth form. The schools thought they were applying the system properly and were furious at being blamed.

By now, many teachers were buckling under the enormous pressure of bringing in a new system with what they felt was inadequate preparation, information and resources.

Students were complaining that their teachers were giving them too much material to study, but the teachers wanted to be prepared for all eventualities. They had no past exam papers to work from. Most hadn't had sight of sample exam papers and they didn't know what a good sample essay looked like because there wasn't one.

The key skills courses were also causing huge headaches of their own. Most independent schools were not bothering with them, but the state schools were shoe-horning them into overcrowded timetables; failure rates were high.

There was a cultural casualty too. The lower-sixth year has traditionally been a year in which students were able to do other things but work. They could direct the school play, produce the school magazine, do Duke of Edinburgh awards and have time over to think about their chosen subjects.

This was possible because there were no exams on the horizon. Certainly some students regarded it as a doss year, but at its best it was an opportunity for students to concentrate on some personal development.

Many schools have seen enriching activities for the lower-sixth fall by the wayside due to pressure of AS deadlines. Some have been unable to do something as basic as field a sports team for that year group. Out-of-school activities, such as music lessons, pursued individually by students, have also lost out.

The A-level system did need an overhaul. It was designed for a post-war world where it was used to select a chosen few for a small group of homogenous universities. The broadening of the academic diet for sixth formers is accepted, by most, as essential, and Estelle Morris was at pains to point out that broader sixth-form studies are not going to be sacrificed.

Whether the reforms she has set in train will be enough to deliver broadening, without breaking the backs of students, remains to be seen.

Comments