So many exams, so little time

Why are AS-level exam papers bunched together before half-term? Sarah Cassidy finds out
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The Independent Online

Next month will herald the start of a stressful summer for 16-year-old Anna Dobbie and thousands of sixth-formers like her. Anna is due to sit her AS-level exams, the controversial new qualification now in its second year.

After the furore surrounding last summer's exams, Anna had hoped this year would be a smoother ride. However, she was horrified to discover that she must sit all but one of her papers in just over a week, and that they fall before the half-term traditionally used for revision. "It is very worrying and disheartening," says Anna. "My exams are so crammed together that there will be very little time to revise in between. The school is having to work very hard to get us through the syllabus in time."

Her classmates at Colchester County High School in Essex who are studying all three sciences have three papers scheduled for alternate days in the same week.

Anna's father, Will, a telecoms consultant, believes science students are being penalised. "Some schools may take a macho stance and assume their students can deal with anything," he says. "But why should the science students have a harder task than others?

"I actually believe the introduction of the AS-levels is a good thing. The Government has, however, shown considerable weakness in the face of adverse comments about the first year of the exams."

Anna and her family are not alone in their concerns. Head teachers have warned that students have had their preparation time cut to worrying levels. Schools fear that many teachers will struggle to cover all the course material. Many students have also lost a week of preparation because of the Golden Jubilee, which has shifted some exams forward to leave the jubilee week free of tests.

Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary, ordered a review of the AS-level exams immediately after her appointment. One of its recommendations was that exams should be more evenly spread, meaning more should be scheduled early in the exam timetable.The AS-exams start on 13 May and are followed by the A2 papers that run until 28 June. Last year, exams started on 21 May and fewer papers were scheduled for the early weeks.

A teacher at an independent school, who insists on remaining anonymous, says: "They're so short of markers, they want to get the AS-levels out of the way before the A-level scripts come in.I have one girl who has seven weeks between her first and last exam," he added. "Keeping pupils focused for that length of time is extremely difficult. The review, which was supposed to make things easier, has created a worse system."

Gwen Evans, the deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, warns that science experiments are being dropped because of the pressure to complete the course before the exams. "Paradoxically, if they had left the exam timetable the same as last year, at least it would be familiar to schools," she says.

Gareth Matthewson, the chairman of the National Association of Head Teachers' exams committee, says the association was disappointed that the Government had not accepted its proposal to delay the AS-levels until June.However, the Joint Council for General Qualifications, the umbrella body for exam boards, argues that a great deal of care has gone into the timetable.