Pupils 'shattered' by exam load, say heads

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The Independent Online

Headteachers are calling for a drastic review of the examination system after claiming that this year's schedule has left thousands of pupils "shattered".

Headteachers are calling for a drastic review of the examination system after claiming that this year's schedule has left thousands of pupils "shattered".

Leaders of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) say changes to the timetable failed to ease the pressure on teenagers sitting AS-levels in the summer term of their first year in the sixth form. Instead, bringing forward the start of AS-level exams had reduced the amount of time pupils had in which to prepare for them. Consequently, many had given up sport, drama, music and other voluntary activities to find time to revise.

At present, AS-levels are timetabled to be taken soon after Easter – giving youngsters in effect only two terms to prepare for them after starting in the sixth form. This year exams began on 13 May, compared with 21 May last year. Heads now intend to tell the exam boards that the AS-level exams should be sat much later in the summer term, perhaps at the start of July, so that, in the words of one headteacher, "first-year sixth formers get back their lives".

The fresh demand for a shake-up follows calls for an investigation into the entire system because of blunders exposed by The Independent last week. David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, has called for the licence of the beleaguered exam board Edexcel to be revoked. The board was responsible for three errors, including forcing girls at Roe-dean independent school to delay an exam because the paper arrived late.

Gareth Matthewson, vice- president of the NAHT and head of one of the biggest comprehensives in the country, the 2,000-pupil Whitchurch High School in Cardiff, said: "Children are over-assessed. That is one problem that's the same as last year. Pupils still finish their GCSEs at exactly the same time as they always have done. But they then have what amounts to just two terms to cram in the AS-level syllabus. Teachers are desperately trying to cover all the material in time. The rest of the A-level curriculum is relaxed by comparison.''

Mr Matthewson, who also chairs a special NAHT committee on the curriculum, added: "We are arguing that the AS-level exam should come towards the end of the first year. I think there is too much pressure on AS-level students. There is a lot for them to do in just two terms.''

The pressure on the students is the latest in a string of complaints about the exam system, despite the fact that Estelle Morris, Secretary of State for Education, reviewed the AS-level soon after she was appointed. Headteachers said last year its introduction was a "shambles''. Timetabling clashes had meant that some pupils had to be held incommunicado and even stay at teachers' homes overnight to avoid them meeting fellow classmates who had already sat the exam.

Mr Matthewson said many of these problems had been ironed out by the review. The Joint Council for General Qualifications said care had gone into preparing the timetable for this year's exams.

Some schools, including the London Oratory – attended by two of Tony Blair's sons – have delayed all AS-levels until the end of the second year of the sixth form so pupils sit them at the same time as A-levels.