This botched reform of A-levels is a failure

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The Independent Online

The world of the lower sixth-form as today's parents remember it has gone for ever. A year when 17-year-olds could pursue outside interests, learn how to study on their own and not worry too much about exams has been sacrificed so that schools can provide a broad sixth-form curriculum. Today, we describe the new pressures on sixth-formers as they struggle to cope with government reforms that aim to ensure that the vast majority of sixth-formers take at least four, rather than three, A-level subjects in the first year of their two-year course.

The world of the lower sixth-form as today's parents remember it has gone for ever. A year when 17-year-olds could pursue outside interests, learn how to study on their own and not worry too much about exams has been sacrificed so that schools can provide a broad sixth-form curriculum. Today, we describe the new pressures on sixth-formers as they struggle to cope with government reforms that aim to ensure that the vast majority of sixth-formers take at least four, rather than three, A-level subjects in the first year of their two-year course.

Head teachers say that some pupils are working a 60-hour week, and that many say they want to drop one of their subjects.

The reforms are of a piece with the ministerial obsession with testing, which means that we are nurturing the most tested generation of schoolchildren in the Western world. Many of the lower-sixth class of 2001 have taken the first part of their A-levels this month, just a term after they joined the sixth-form. All A-levels now come in modules, or bite-size chunks, and exams are taken throughout the course.

The Government is unapologetic. Ministers point out that sixth-formers on the Continent are taught for longer and do more subjects than those in this country. A broader curriculum is good for pupils and the economy, they say. Few heads would disagree; but the result of a piecemeal reform, which tries to maintain the old A-level unchanged and increase the number of subjects taken, is in danger of narrowing rather than broadening young people's experience. A school featured in today's education supplement has had to drop the two-week trips abroad that it used to offer modern-language students.

Independent schools are voting with their feet as growing numbers of their sixth-formers opt out of A-levels and for the International Baccalaureate - a mix of five subjects. Ministers should take note.

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