Bethan Jenkins is 17 and a guinea pig. She may listen to Radiohead and wear alternative clothes, but since she was five she has been one of the test subjects of major change in the way the education system is run. She started her infant school days with a newly born national curriculum, was one of the first to take national tests at seven, 11 and 14 and now she is in the first tranche of teenagers heaving under the weight of AS-levels.
Bethan is lucky. She goes to a superb school and is very able. She got 11 GCSEs, all at A*. She is organised and knows the meaning of hard study. She doesn't have to work to earn money to support herself at university. She has parents willing to abandon holidays and social activities to make sure that someone is around to support her. Her mother is a teacher and her father a psychotherapist. So Bethan has been able to absorb all the seismic shifts and changes of Conservative and New Labour policy on education over the past 12 years with relative elasticity. That was until now, and the advent of AS-levels which has left even Bethan wilting under the strain.
The pressures on children, even the brightest, are so burdensome that some high-profile schools are kicking the whole system into touch. The Oratory, the London state school attended by Euan Blair, Tony Blair's eldest child, is letting its sixth-formers take their AS and A-levels next year in one big bang like old A-levels.
Bethan is coping but it's hard. She is taking five AS-levels English, French, religious studies, classical civilisation and economics at Newstead Wood Girls' School, a high-achieving state grammar in Orpington, Kent. When it became clear earlier this year how onerous the demands of AS-levels were, the school gave the lower sixth the option of dropping a subject; 45 per cent of this extremely able and committed group took the opportunity. Bethan felt she did not have a good enough reason to drop a subject but she did replace maths with economics. She found maths hard and did not have the time to spend on extra study to bring her up to speed. She was too busy with all her other AS-levels.
She has been too busy to do the Duke of Edinburgh silver award that she was looking forward to, too busy to do voluntary work she fancied doing, or to research the university she will go to. She wants to study philosophy and French and is considering Edinburgh, Bristol and Oxford universities. She has not been able to make any of the open days this year she has been too busy with school work. She will go during the summer holidays. That is when she plans to read a book again a whole suitcase full of them. She has not had time to read a book for pleasure since last summer.
Then there is the problem with the flute. She has been taking flute lessons for years and is now at grade 7. The trouble is her lessons are on a Saturday morning. "After a week at school I'm shattered," she says. "I haven't got time to practise any more either. My flute teacher just lets me play some relaxing things because I'm too tired to do anything new."
The lower sixth year used to be a calm haven after the frenetic GCSE year, but that has vanished. Her elder sister, Naomi, who is at Sussex University, says: "I took my A-levels three years ago and I thought I worked hard but it is nothing like Bethan has to. I had more free time during school for private study. I'm very glad I'm not doing these exams. I don't know how she does it."
Bethan does it by being very focused and very organised. She leaves for school from her home in Lewisham, south London, at 7.40am and gets home at 4.30pm. Apart from one free half hour in school time on a Tuesday she spends the rest of the school day in AS lessons or doing the school's own key skills programme. Once home she works till 9pm, apart from a break to eat quickly with her parents. "There is always overspill but I don't work any later. I'm no good working late. I catch up on Sunday instead working usually from about 11am till 6.30pm." Her working week is approaching 50 hours, well over the limit in the European directive on working hours. She is in the middle of her AS exams and her bedroom is strewn with piles of heavily annotated papers, folders and work books. Little piles of them are dotted strategically round her family's Victorian semi where she stations herself for a change of revising scene.
Her exam load is awe-inspiring. Last week she took nine exams within four days. On Tuesday she took two religious studies papers in a three-hour back-to-back block. At the same time she should have been taking two economics papers but the timings clashed, so she had a 20-minute break in which she was supervised by a teacher and not allowed to speak to anyone before taking two and a half hours of economics. There have been thousands of similar clashes across the country. Some students have had to spend the night at the homes of teachers to keep them in isolation from students who have already taken the exams.
"It really has been a shock," says Bethan. "I was expecting much more free time, smaller classes and a much more relaxed atmosphere after GCSEs. I am happy at school but sometimes the prospect of another full day at school has not been appealing.
"I don't think we should be taking all of these exams. GCSEs were enough to show aptitude and to give us practice in exams. This year should be about studying subjects you really like in depth, but my life is dominated by subjects like economics and classical civilisation which I don't enjoy as much as the subjects I will take on next year. There is no time in lessons for discussions or debates. There is no time in school for anything else but work. I feel cheated."
Bethan's mother, Jeanne, who teaches pre-school children, sympathises with her daughter. "I think these exams are a waste of time. I am not sure the universities will take full notice of the extra burden they involve. I do support an extended curriculum in the sixth form I think it was too narrow. But this has not been thought out properly. Do they really need to examine every subject? Couldn't course work be assessed instead?"
Meanwhile Barbara Gibbs, the head teacher of Bethan's school, is furious that uncertainty is being cast on the new system while students are in the middle of the first exams. "Newstead Wood School has a fine reputation for debating, community service, creative writing, music and sport, as well as consistently outstanding examination results," she says. "The constant pressures of AS are eroding time and energy for all of this. The lower sixth are pivotal to the life of this school. However, they now have only about 29 teaching weeks between one set of public examinations and the next.
"As always, students and teachers have worked incredibly hard to make this and all of the other initiatives successful without compromising the ideals of the school at considerable personal cost.
"It is inexcusable that uncertainty about the AS system has been raised in the minds of both Year 12 students and their parents by prominent public figures, when students are still sitting the examinations and the first round has yet to be completed.
"These same public figures were part of the administration that initiated this particular reform. Why wasn't it thought through in advance?"
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