The students who said no to a class revolution

The new A-level courses coming this September are being welcomed - but only up to a point. Pupils are more interested in media studies than science.
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This September, students who have just taken their GCSEs will begin working towards the new A-levels brought in under the Government's Curriculum 2000 reforms.

This September, students who have just taken their GCSEs will begin working towards the new A-levels brought in under the Government's Curriculum 2000 reforms.

These aim to broaden the curriculum for 16- to 19-year-olds by encouraging them to take more subjects, some of them vocational, and to acquire a Key Skills Certificate in communication, use of numbers and IT.

According to our research, students appear very positive about them. But one thing is certain, they are determined not to be a radical battering ram to reform for the Government.

They are taking cautious and sensible decisions on what they are going to do during their A-level years, and choosing subjects that either enhance their chances of getting into their first choice university or appeal to them on a personal level.

A Hampshire study of student subject choices has found the top 10 choices include media studies, psychology, film studies, law and art and design.

But they are not contrasting their subjects to incorporate a mix of arts and science A-levels as the Government would like them to. Only where the students feel it might find favour with a particular prestigious university are they mixing disciplines.

Also, vocational A-levels and Key Skills Certificates are, mostly, not on the agenda.

When a group of students was asked why they were not attracted to a contrasting subject such as a science, one replied, "What's the use of one science subject in the sixth form?"

When asked what their attitude would be if universities clearly asked for a contrasting subject, the same student replied, "Well that would make the science useful".

Our research suggests that students welcome the opportunity to keep their options open and not specialise too early. The possibility of studying a fourth or fifth subject beyond the age of 16 with the new-style, one-year AS-level allows them to continue with subjects that interest them.

It also allows them to change their mind at the end of the first year without jeopardising their chances of gaining three A-levels.

They seem to be seeing their fourth subject as an extra qualification to show that they are capable of hard work, and welcome the chance of taking an externally recognised examination at the end of their first year of study. At present, if students drop a subject part way through an A-level course, they are given no credit for the work they have done.

Even though the reforms will mean more time in classrooms and harder work, students are generally sanguine about this prospect. Many welcome the opportunity of keeping up a steady pace of work over the two years, rather than having to take all their examinations at the end of the programme.

Our research confirms the findings from a recent study in Hampshire that suggests that students are not, on the whole, choosing a contrasting fourth subject as the Government had hoped.

In the absence of a clear steer from universities and employers, 250 students we have interviewed so far are developing very personally constructed views of breadth.

They are choosing by considering personal interests, what they understand employers and higher education providers think might complement their main subjects, the desire to do something in which they will be successful and, in some cases, the challenge of taking something new.

Some students, anxious about the increased workloads, have chosen a subject which they think may not be too taxing.

Nevertheless, there is some indication that the message about the need for a contrasting subject is reaching a certain section of the student population, notably those who are aiming for the most prestigious universities and for courses such as medicine.

Short of introducing a baccalaureate, taking five subjects rather than four would be one way of encouraging contrasting study. Only a small minority of students we have talked to are expecting to take five subjects next year. A-levels have a reputation of being so difficult that most students see five as simply too much work.

If, on the other hand, general studies is taken into consideration, a much greater proportion of students will be taking five subjects in the first year of their courses next year.

Unfortunately, general studies has a chequered reputation with many universities because it is regarded as not being properly taught and as less demanding than other subjects. Students' attitudes, therefore, tend to be ambivalent.

This may change as a result of the Curriculum 2000 reforms, because the new general studies specifications will demand a more explicitly taught approach. It may be that this will improve the status of general studies to such a point that it becomes a much-valued fifth subject.

Students know little about either GNVQs (now known as vocational A-levels) or the Key Skills Certificate. Most schools offer few Advanced GNVQs and many schools do not intend to offer the new Key Skills Certificate this September, content to leave it for a year to "see what will happen".

In effect, students have only been told about the compulsory part of the reforms which is the requirement to take the AS, the new one-year half A-level, as part of A-level study. The rest of the reform package is optional, and students' understanding reflects this.

This is not to say that there is a lack of concern about other features of the reforms. There is general professional support for the concept of key skills, particularly the so-called wider ones of problem-solving, working with others and improving own learning and performance.

However, there is hesitancy about how to implement the proposed Key Skills Certificate in communication, use of numbers and IT, and reservations about its currency.

The issue of GNVQ/vocational A-levels is somewhat different. While the reforms envisage that all students will experience key skills in some form, there is no expectation that they have to achieve a balance of academic and vocational study. Many students have not come across GNVQs and do not expect to take the new vocational A-levels.

This situation may be changing, though. The creation of the new one-year and two-year GNVQ/vocational A-levels appears to be encouraging some schools and colleges to timetable these qualifications in such a way they are available to a wider range of students. Moreover, the new vocational A-levels will be externally examined and this may make them more credible with employers and universities.

The positive reception that GCSE students are currently giving the proposed reforms has to be viewed in the light of the fact that they have not yet seen their full timetables or experienced the intellectual demands of the new curriculum.

Many of them have been told by their teachers that the new AS-level lies somewhere between GCSE and A-level. In reality, in our view, in most cases the new AS-level will be nearer the full A-level than GCSE, and students will be examined after little more than two terms of study. This is going to be no easy ride.

The vast majority of the students we interviewed intend to take a part-time job once they move into the sixth form or go to college. While the majority will confine their newly acquired part-time work to a day at the weekend and possibly one additional evening, many will go much further, some working 15 hours or more.

These students will have to balance a much fuller time-table, find time to undertake additional study and complete assignments alongside paid work demands. Guidance to ensure that students can negotiate the new demands of Curriculum 2000 and still "have a life" will be very much needed from September onwards.

Students' attitudes alone will not guarantee the ultimate success of the reforms. Students, not surprisingly, will reflect what is acceptable and will tend not to pioneer radical changes.

They support a more flexible and slightly more demanding curriculum, but they remain more ambivalent on the really important issues - contrasting subjects, key skills, mixing and matching academic and vocational study and the potentially innovative interdisciplinary approaches of the new general studies.

Securing a broader and richer curriculum will require a clear vision and steer from government to ensure that students do not feel they are taking undue risks in embarking on new patterns of study.


Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours, who lecture at the Institute of Education, University of London, are working with Chris Savory on a research project 'Broadening the Advanced Level Curriculum: institutional responses to the Qualifying for Success reforms'.

This project is funded by the Nuffield Foundation. Two working papers produced so far are available from Lifelong Learning Group, priced £10 each. Contact Irene Kemp, 020 -7612 6923,