Education: Studied approach to what follows GCSEs: Sarah Strickland finds pupils back in class after exams

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The Independent Online
FOR most pupils, the final GCSE exam signals the end of six weeks' gruelling hard work and the beginning of freedom. But at Malvern College in Hereford and Worcester, pupils this year went back to the classroom for two weeks - not to conduct post-mortems into their exam papers or discuss current affairs, but to study A-level subjects.

With parents paying fees until the end of term, the college felt obliged to try to offer value for money. Roy Chapman, the head, said: 'Parents are paying for their children to be educated and we take our obligations seriously. We have got this vacuum at the end of GCSEs and have to try to do something positive and constructive at a time when pupils' instincts are telling them that they ought to be winding down and doing three to four weeks of not very much.'

What the college came up with was giving pupils the chance to sample four A-level subjects before making their final choices for the following year. The scheme, first tried four years ago, is producing impressive results, according to Frank Harris, head of sixth form.

'Prior to this, a lot of people didn't consider their A-level choices between when they wrote them down and when they started in September,' he said. About 15 per cent used to change subjects early in the new academic year - the college was having to deal with up to 139 subject changes between 122 people. Now only about 14 changes are occurring, mostly among new entrants.

This year pupils did about 16 lessons in each subject. It provides the chance to sample them and make a more informed decision.

Tom was wondering whether to do maths or physics. 'It was a toss up between the two and it's convinced me - maths quite definitely lost,' he said.

James was torn between studying three sciences or Latin, Greek and German. 'A taste of the sciences has definitely made me decide I want to do the arts,' he said. 'I would have gone for the arts if I hadn't had the experience, but I would always have had a doubt in my mind - that I could have done the sciences.'

For those considering subjects that were not available at GCSE, such as ancient history or politics and economics, the scheme is particularly useful, while those sure of their choices have a taste of what is to come. Tom found the change from GCSE to A-level a shock: 'I didn't expect quite such a massive leap,' he said.'

Robert Tims, who teaches chemistry, believes pupils are glad to get back to the classroom after six weeks of exams and revision. 'They appreciate the rigour of doing something new, where they are expected to stretch themselves a bit,' he said.

Pupils tend to see it differently. 'There's quite a lot of resentment about it,' said one. 'We've worked for our exams and we're shattered. Other schools have finished - why not us?'

Some of those who were sure about their choices felt they were wasting their time. The decision by some teachers, like Mr Tims, to set homework and even an exam was proving extremely unpopular.

With hindsight, students in the lower sixth agreed that for those who had not made up their minds the scheme was worthwhile. Lawrence said: 'You complain at the time but afterwards you realise that it was quite useful.' James felt that 'the only way to really find out is to do the course' but said it had convinced him to change from the Nuffield to the Salters syllabus for chemistry.

Pupils were divided over how to perfect the scheme. One said two weeks did not 'give you enough to chew on' - although he would not want to do more. Others felt a fortnight was far too long, with pupils becoming disruptive and unable to concentrate. Emma wanted more flexibility. 'You should be able to change your options in the second week - I wanted to try about six subjects,' she said. Another was frustrated by the subject blocks, which had prevented him from trying a subject that had interested him (pupils must choose one from each block).

Mr Harris is considering pupils' criticisms and says he may shorten the period. But swapping from one subject to another would, he feels, make life very difficult for teachers and destroy the point of the exercise. 'It's to get an idea of what it actually feels like,' he said. 'They shouldn't really be judging by first impressions then changing to another subject - they should stick with it in case they suddenly feel it's clicking.'

(Photograph omitted)

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