New sixth-form system helps mature students

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One of the plus points of the new post-16 qualification system is the ease with which it can be used by people coming back into education after a break – people who dropped out of education to work or raise a family.

Splitting A-level down the middle means that a mature entrant has less to lose from embarking on a course of study. You can qualify for an AS-level in a year and it is an academic qualification in its own right; you can then move on to an A2 qualification. Under the old A-level system, a student who had been looking for a qualification, but had decided the course was not for them after a year, had nothing to show for their studies. They either had to slog on for another year or to accept they had just wasted their time.

Linsey May, 20, has just finished a successful year doing AS-levels in English literature, communication studies, film studies and performing arts at a West Midlands sixth-form college. She will do her A2 courses from September and plans to go on to university to do film studies.

Linsey did three A-levels at another sixth-form college when she was 18, but didn't do well in them even though she had left school with 10 GCSEs: two starred As in English, one A, three Bs and four Cs. Yet she got a D in her English A-level, and failed the other two.

"I didn't like the college. I had to have a part-time job because I'm from a single-parent family, and there was no sympathy from the college. If I said I couldn't come to orchestra practice because of work, they would say, 'You'll have to miss work.'"

Her A-level grades were so poor that she didn't apply for any university courses. Instead, she went to work at a Butlins holiday camp and from there moved on to working in pubs. "Then one day I thought, 'I'm damned if I'm working like this for the rest of my life' and decided to go back to college."

This time round, Linsey has loved AS-levels, and feels she has chosen the right subjects for her. "I have preferred my AS to my A-levels," she says.

The modular system that is a feature of the new post-16 qualification system is particularly helpful for adult returners because it splits the courses into bite-sized chunks. This makes them easier to manage if they are being done part-time.

It also allows students to take the exams in stages, and early success on a course is what most adult returners need to boost their confidence as they are out of the habit of studying. Even if they do badly in their first modular exams, it gives them experience of what it feels like to take an exam again and they have time in hand during the course to repeat the exam again.

The new vocational A-levels are a boon too, because they offer A-level equivalent qualifications in a range of vocational areas.

The one feature of the system that has caused so much grief to this year's lower sixth formers – the intensity of the workload – can actually benefit adult returners. They are generally focused on what they want to achieve and are willing to work hard to get there. One thing the new system does not do is waste anyone's time.