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Buried in a deluge of exam papers

The advent of new AS-levels has created a logistical nightmare that will stress both staff and pupils. Jon Slater and Julie Henry report on a looming summer of discontent.

MEMBERS of the Government's exam watchdog are set to carry out a post-mortem into the chaos caused by the new AS-exams.

Dennis Richards, a member of the Qualification and Curriculum Authority board, said this year's problems had to be analysed, after reports of schools having no space for examinees, thousands of exam clashes and huge cost increases.

Mr Richards is headteacher at St Aidan's High School, Harrogate, where staff had to deal with 109 exam clashes. He said: "The sheer mechanics of the exam timetable may mean a reconsideration. The QCA will undoubtedly have to look at it."

His comments come as the National Association of Head Teachers demanded a government inquiry into the delivery of A-level reforms.

The QCA is already investigating the stress students suffer from the increased workload throughout their first year in the sixth-form.

Last year, 771,809 A-level papers were taken. This summer that figure rose by 20 per cent following the introduction of the AS-level, a half-way house between GCSE and A-levels.

As many as 100,000 students will take the new exam and as a result the cost of exams fees, invigilators, new desks, administration staff and full-time examination officers has increased as much as 50 per cent for some schools.

At Colchester sixth-form college staff are grappling with a logistical nightmare to ensure that students get the chance to sit their papers. The number of exam entries at the college, which has more than 2,000 students, has more than tripled to 24,000 this year. On Wednesday morning, 1,100 students were taking exams, followed by a further 700 in the afternoon. A total of 450 students have clashes, increasing the administrative burden as they must be isolated until they can take one of the exams at another time (see story below).

Lorna Young, exams officer, is struggling to fit everyone in. She said:

"I've been doing this job for 11 years and this is totally unprecedented."

Roger Pope, the deputy principal, estimates that the examinations will cost the college close to pound;400,000. The exam budget, which covers exam board fees, will be pound;320,000, a huge rise on the pound;178,000 spent last year. The college has had to buy 650 new exam desks at a cost of pound;13,000, spend an extra pound;10,000 on invigilators and employ another three people in its exams office.

To accommodate everyone, exam sittings have to be dispersed across 51 different rooms, including 45 which seat just 20 students. Staff have already been faced with panicking candidates unable to find where they are supposed to be.

"We have given pupils personal timetables but in a college this size inevitably students don't do what they are told. However much we tell them to find out where the exams are they don't," Lorna Young said.

At Ashton-under-Lyne sixth-form college the number of invigilators needed has jumped from six to 29.

It is a sign of the exam-driven times that the former gym at Gateway sixth- form college, Leicester, has now been refurbished as a permanent exam room. When not in use by teenagers sitting modules, end-of-year exams and resits, it is hired out to the Open University and nearby De Montfort University. Other rooms have collapsible walls so they can be opened out, cutting down the need for an invigilator per classroom.

De Aston School, Lincolnshire, has hired out the racecourse building in nearby Market Rasen for exams. But the sheer volume of entries this year means there is insufficient space even there and students are now also sitting exams in school.

"It has been really difficult finding a quiet part of the school for students doing oral exams," said headteacher Tony Neal. "We are a rural school and getting students backwards and forwards at different times of day has been a problem.

"It is often things that seem pretty trivial that cause concern. For instance, we barely have the space to store the burgeoning number of scripts."

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