IN the sixth-form common room of Wyedean comprehensive school in Chepstow, one subject dominates break-time conversations - AS exams.
Barely a year after taking GCSEs, lower sixth-formers at this Gloucestershire school are boning up again, this time preparing to become the first to sit the new-style exams in June.
As a result, school drama productions, sporting activities and prefect duties have been scaled down, work-shadowing has been shelved and after-school clubs and social lives have been all but forgotten.
"The work is taking up so much time that it doesn't leave much for anything else," says Harriet Riley, 17, who is studying English, art, drama and general studies.
"I'm a young leader at Guides and help at Beaver Scouts but I can't go as often as I would like because of the workload." With exams coming up, she suspects she will not be able to go at all.
Introduced last September as part of the Government's Curriculum 2000 reforms, AS-levels were designed to keep pupils' options open for as long as possible and to fatten up the traditional post-16 diet of three subjects to four - or even five - for at least the lower sixth form.
But step into any secondary school this week and the story is pretty much the same. "It seems far too much to be expected in one year," says Sarah Birt, 17, and another Wyedean pupil. "If you are ill, you don't feel you can take time off because you can't keep on top of it all if you do."
Teachers feel under pressure too. "Staff are not sure what standard the exams are going to be," says headteacher John Claydon. "In their anxiety to make sure students are going to do well they have taught to the standard that A-level has typically been."
In effect, this has meant that students of varying abilities have all been doing the first year of four A-level subjects.
"There has been insufficient recognition of the variety of ability of students who are doing these courses," says John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association. "It is just not right to say that everybody can do four courses. They can't."
The strain students and teachers feel under has not gone unnoticed, however. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is evaluating student stress, and on-going research by London University's Institute of Education and the Nuffield Foundation is monitoring how schools are coping with the Curriculum 2000 reforms.
"There are definite quantitative gains," says the Institute's Dr Ann Hodgson, who is co-directing the project with Dr Ken Spours.
"Students are doing more things and undertaking more qualifications pretty much across the board.
"We have more doubts about the qualitative gains in terms of teaching and learning. Undoubtedly there are teething problems with any new reforms put in place, and we are trying to tease out what might be short-term issues related to introducing new reforms and what might be longer-term problems."
One of those is whether so much assessment in the first year after GCSE - through coursework and optional exams in January - is giving students the right introduction to more independent A-level-style study, or simply encouraging teachers to teach to the test.
As part of the research project - Broadening the Advanced Level Curriculum - 40 AS-level pupils around the country are being interviewed regularly to gauge the impact of the new reforms on student learning, which also included the introduction of the new vocational A-level.
In general, students have told researchers they like the choice the new curriculum gives them and being able to keep their options open for longer. Greg Lamyman, another 17-year-old Wyedean pupil, has appreciated the breadth of choice but still has concers.
"We still don't know how much value an AS-level carries for going to university. If it turns out not to be beneficial to have these extra subjects, then I could have just focused on the other ones."
The raft of new qualifications has meant a complete overhaul of the application system to higher education, and the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service has only just finished the task of gathering the new entry requirements for more than 45,000 different courses in the UK. The Big Guide, listing those requirements, is published by UCAS next month.
"Schools have had to advise students in the dark as far as universities' intentions are concerned," says John Dunford. "They should have made up their mind earlier about how to treat the new qualification - schools needed that information in the summer of 2000."
In the confusion, 17-year-old Hazel Jones, for one, believed her AS subjects would be enough to earn her a place on an HND course in animal care and management at a local college. Now, it turns out, they are not.
"I'm feeling a bit as if I wasted my year," says Hazel. "I did not do that well in my GCSE exams and I'm finding it very hard."
But a spokesman for UCAS said that universities and colleges were reacting positively to the introduction of AS exams. "The new system will be a lot more tailored to individuals' qualifications and requirements."
Delyth Chambers, admissions manager for Birmingham University, is not surprised students are confused after looking at various prospectuses. "Every institution is taking a slightly different tack," she said. But certainly the three universities The TES spoke to have been keen to inform schools of how they intend to count AS-levels.
Broadly speaking, Cambridge and Birmingham universities and Imperial College in London stress that offers will still be conditional on predicted grades at the end of the upper sixth form. But AS certificates in contrasting subjects - or ones which are highly relevant to the degree in question - will be looked on favourably.
However, students who do not have additional AS subjects or who decide to retake AS exams in the upper sixth will not be penalised. The independent sector seems to be taking AS-levels in its stride, although there are concerns about consistency of standards across the three awarding bodies and across subjects.
"We think insufficient work has been done in defining those standards in a clear enough way. There's not the sort of carefully thought out definition of grade boundaries as when GCSEs were introduced, which is our last experience of a new exam," says Graham Able, headmaster of the independent Dulwich College in London, and joint chairman of the Headmasters' ConferenceGirls' Schools Association' educationacademic policy committee.
"It is our perception that students are working considerably harder than their predecessors, but of course they don't know that."
And some state schools are being bullish about concerns. "We mustn't forget that under the old system there would have been about 35 per cent of our sixth-form taking four A-levels," said Dennis Richards, headteacher of St Aidan's Church of England High School in Harrogate, North Yorkshire and a member of the QCA board.
"I would hold to the view that AS-level has been a step forward."
However, confusion is destined to reign in many schools for some time yet. Pupils intent on reaching the old A-level standard (now known as A2) by next summer, will have to start courses in earnest at the end of this term, learning alongside pupils who intend to drop the subject once results come through in August.
"Clearly there have been some teething problems in the first year, but I think we must hold to the structure - which has to be sensible - to provide an interim accreditation towards A-level," says John Dunford.
"When it wasn't there you either got you're A-level or le