Heads fear new A-levels may be too demanding

Principals' association warns that the plans for new, harder 'A2' exams for sixth-formers could make further study less accessible
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Students taking new A-level courses may have to reach higher standards than any of their predecessors, headteachers fear.

Students taking new A-level courses may have to reach higher standards than any of their predecessors, headteachers fear.

Leaders of the Secondary Heads Association have told exam boards they are alarmed at plans to make A-level questions harder. They say the new exam could lead to the pass-rate at A-level falling for the first time for 18 years. From 2002, A-levels will be divided into six "bite-sized" chunks and most students will take four subjects instead of the present three.

At the end of their first year in the sixth form they will take a new AS exam - half an A-level - before deciding whether to continue with a subject to a full A-level. Exam officials say they are not making A-level more demanding but simply maintaining standards. Because the AS exam will count for half the marks and will be easier than existing A-levels, the exam at the end of the second year will have more challenging questions than any of those in the present A-levels.

John Dunford, the association's general secretary, said: "We are very concerned that they will be harder to pass than the existing A-levels. That makes nonsense of the reforms, which are supposed to make A-level accessible to more students."

Dr Nick Tate, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which advises the Government on exams, said: "There are going to be some questions that are more demanding and more stretching. That is the only way you can cope with having the intermediate AS at a lower level. If you don't do that you reduce standards overall and we have a very clear directive from ministers that standards must be maintained."

He added that the maths AS exam would be more difficult than that in other subjects because officials believed maths standards had slipped. But ministers are also under fire from independent school heads who fear that the new A-levels will be easier than the old. They believe that the change from O-levels to GCSE made the 16-plus exam easier and A-level changes may lead to a similar lowering of standards.

Dr Philip Evans, head of Bedford School, said it would be difficult to ensure that standards were maintained by marrying an easier AS exam with a harder A2 - the exam at the end of the second year - "even if we assume the will is there it do it".

The fact that the A2 might have harder questions did not mean it would be harder to pass. Much depended on how tough the marking was. "Examiners will still need to set their grade boundaries at a more demanding level if standards are to be maintained under the new system," Dr Evans said. James Sabben-Clare, head of Winchester, was also worried about standards. He said that one "synoptic" paper, intended to draw together the different strands of the course, was not enough. "At present, subjects such as English and history have three or four synoptic papers," he said.