Review is promised of AS-level 'shambles'

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The Independent Online

The Government ordered a wide-ranging review of the biggest A-level shake-up for 50 years last night, bowing to complaints from headteachers that its introduction had been a "shambles".

The Secretary of State for Education, Estelle Morris, admitted "lessons had to be learnt" over the introduction of AS levels ­ worth half an A-level and taken at the end of the first year of sixth form ­ and the new key skills qualification for all sixth-formers.

Her acknowledgment is the first concession by ministers that the shake-up has put too much pressure on schools and individual pupils. She said: "These are the most fundamental reforms to advanced qualifications for 50 years.

"Inevitably, not everything is yet right in the way they have been brought in and there will be lessons to be learnt. We need to make sure the new qualifications maintain their rigour while not placing unreasonable burdens of assessment on students, schools or colleges."

The review will include a "detailed evaluation" of the new key skills test, said by headteachers to be "the straw that broke the camel's back". At last week's National Association of Head Teachers conference, delegates said they would refuse to let their pupils take it next year because it had put too much pressure on them. Many pupils had failed as a result.

Ms Morris said she was still committed to broadening the sixth-form curriculum, which the introduction of AS-levels had sought to achieve by allowing youngsters to study up to six subjects. They are taking the exams this month after only two and a half terms in the sixth form.

Her review was welcomed by heads and teachers' leaders. Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "The Government has underestimated the cumulative effect upon pupils and students of the top heavy testing and examination regimes we now have."

On Monday Dr Nick Tate, the main architect of the system and now headmaster of Winchester, admitted its introduction had gone wrong. He suggested one way out would be to reduce the number of GCSEs pupils sat.

Schools had complained pupils were doing a 50-hour week to fit in all the work for the new exams, and they were having to cancel a wide range out out-of-school activities to concentrate on the tests. Some pupils were having to sit as many as four tests a day.

Ms Morris also urged secondary school teachers to take "twilight training" to help the Government's drive to raise standards. The Education Secretary said teachers should be urged to take evening and weekend training sessions as part of the Government's plan to extend the literacy and numeracy strategy successfully pioneered in primary schools into all secondary schools this September.

Mr de Gruchy said: "This is totally unacceptable. A lot of teachers have family responsibilities as well and it's just not good enough."

Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, added: "The difficulty is that teachers are already working 53 hours a week in primary schools and 51 in the secondaries."

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