Education: Above and beyond for A-Levels

In the future, sixth formers will be required to take a broader range range of subjects. What are the advantages, and are there any practical problems to solve?
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The Independent Online
Parents with children beginning their GCSE courses this term, and taking their exams in the summer of the year 2000, should prepare for more educational change. When they move into the lower sixth, they will be the first group to experience the new broadened sixth form curriculum. Your offspring will be guinea pigs in an experiment which could spell the beginning of the end of the narrow specialisation which has dogged the education of 17 and 18-year-olds in England.

As the higher education minister, Baroness Blackstone, explained last week, from September 2000, those in the first year of the sixth form will take a clutch of AS-Levels. The likelihood is that the most academic young people will take five (or maybe more). But it won't mean life is easier for 17-year-olds. It will probably mean sixth formers taking more exams, and working harder than they do now.

The change will enable lower sixth formers to study a broader range of subjects in the first year of the sixth form. It will enable those who will eventually concentrate on sciences to continue with an arts or humanities subject, and it will enable arty types to develop their more technical sides.

"It is a fact that young people in England and Wales typically follow a narrower programme of study at advanced level, and are taught for less time, than young people in other European countries," the minister told the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals. "There is, frankly, no good reason why this should be so. There is scope for many 16 and 17- year-olds to follow a broader and more demanding curriculum, with no loss of rigour."

However, because of ministerial concern about the political consequences of abolishing A-Levels, they will remain. In the second year of the sixth form, students will drop two subjects and continue with three subjects to A-Level. This is the kind of tortuous compromise politicians make to appease voters' concerns about falling standards. Never mind that the International Baccalaureat, which enables students to study a range of subjects (sciences, maths, humanities, arts and philosophy) is considered a rigorous qualification, and accepted by Oxford and Cambridge and other universities. Ever since Mrs Thatcher reassured her supporters that the so-called gold standard of A-Levels would remain, our political leaders have felt obliged to follow suit.

Baroness Blackstone is known to have lost out in her effort to get more radical change along the lines of the International Baccalaureat. Tony Blair and the former education minister, Stephen Byers, are thought to have waved the gold standard at her. Which is why she was pleading with the university vice chancellors last week, to make sure the compromise reform happened.

The fact is that universities could simply ignore the Department for Education and Employment's attempt to broaden the sixth form curriculum. And, if they ignored it, the change would be a dead duck. They could decide to continue with their entry requirement for three A grades, or whatever they now insist upon, at A-Level and say nothing about the new AS-Levels. The likelihood, however, is that they won't. University vice chancellors may be slow to change, but they want to help the Government. And anyway, as a collective group in the CVCP, they believe in reform of the sixth form curriculum as much as Baroness Blackstone.

"It is up to us to persuade our admissions' tutors that this is the way it will have to go," says Martin Harris, chairman of the CVCP. As Vice- chancellor of Manchester University, Professor Harris will be meeting all admissions' tutors at the end of October to thank them for their hard work in this admissions round. "I will say then to them it looks as if we shall wish to collaborate with this." If other university bosses follow Harris's lead, admissions' tutors around the country will be telling students that they need certain grades at A-Level and, in addition, certain grades at AS-Level to be accepted on to a degree course.

Mindful, however, that broadening the sixth form curriculum could lead to subjects being covered in less depth, Harris has sounded a note of caution. Subjects such as science and engineering require students to master a large body of knowledge. It is possible that covering five subjects in the first year of the sixth form will affect how much material sixth formers will be able to absorb. That could, in turn, have a knock-on effect on degree courses. If students are not as well prepared for their degree subjects, universities will have to take remedial action to bring them up to speed. That is happening already, because of changes to A-Levels, particularly in science and engineering. With the new AS-Levels, that trend could be accelerated. We might see more students spending four years over their degrees, according to Harris.

This is a sensitive issue - and one the Government will not have thanked Harris for raising - because students are paying a pounds 1,000 a year tuition fee. An extra year at university for engineers and scientists would mean the families of those students shouldering a much bigger financial burden - not just the pounds 1,000 fee for another year, but the extra cost of food and housing for their offspring as well.

The same point was echoed by Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, who said: "I think it's fine to broaden the curriculum, so long as that doesn't mean that people will know less physics and maths than they need to do their degree subjects." In practice, it will probably mean universities such as Oxford, which are highly sought after, setting even higher entry requirements - five A grades (two for the AS-Levels and three for A-Levels) as opposed to the current three As.

Essentially, Baroness Blackstone was addressing the traditional universities in her plea for them to take the new AS-Levels into account in admissions. They are the ones who are wedded to the A-Level system, because specialisation and depth of study is necessary for many of their three-year degrees. That is not the case with the "new" universities, which take some students without conventional A-Levels, and tend to emphasise breadth rather than depth.

"The change is good news," says Leslie Wagner, Vice-chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University. "I have argued that the hegemony of A-Levels has got to be weakened by as many means as possible."

As yet, very little detail has been given about the changes, so many experts are bemused about how they will work in practice. Chris Robson, professor of pure maths at Leeds University, wonders how schools are going to fit in five subjects in the first year of the sixth form, and examine sixth formers in those subjects. Examinations take up half a term, he says. He also wonders how the separate key skills qualification [see box] will work: "How are you going to teach it?" he asks. "Are you going to have a separate hour a week for key skills? Will it be assessed and, if so, how? If students are doing maths A-Level, do you really want them to do something called application of number? The things the Government wants from application of number are really parts of the GCSE."


Q. How are sixth forms going to change?

A. From the year 2000, the Government wants all young people entering the sixth form to study five (in some cases more) AS-Levels. At the end of the first year sixth, they will take exams in those subjects. Those qualifications will amount to the first year of an A-Level. In the second year of the sixth form, students will drop two subjects and concentrate on their three A-Levels.

Q. Are these new AS-Levels like the current AS-Levels?

A. No. The AS-Level is being revised. It will amount to the first half of the full A-Level.

Q. Does that mean sixth form will be easier than it is now?

A. Probably not. Five subjects in the first year of the sixth form will be hard work - for students and teachers. The Government is also introducing a "key skills" course for all sixth formers in IT, communication and the application of number in addition to the AS and A-Levels.

Q. Why do they need key skills' courses? Aren't GCSEs, A and AS-Levels enough?

A. No. Baroness Blackstone, the Higher Education Minister, says business, industry and higher education increasingly need students with a better command of IT, communication and maths.

Q. Why is all this happening?

A. To broaden the curriculum for 17 and 18-year-olds, which has historically been considered too narrow - narrower than any other country. And to make A-Level students work harder. At present they have 15 to 18 hours of tuition each week, compared to 30 hours in France or Germany. Baroness Blackstone says the curriculum we have at the moment was designed for a world which no longer exists, in which higher education was the preserve of a specialised elite. Now, one-third of young people go to university. And the jobs they will be applying for will demand a wider range of skills than those of only 10 years ago.