In the eye of AS season storm

Summer brings an administrative headache to one large secondary school which becomes an exam factory. Julie Henry reports

THE joke is that silver-haired Peter Edwards had brown locks before the exam season started.

The retired deputy head is something of a hero at Whitchurch high school for stepping into the breach when the examinations officer had to take sick leave with high blood pressure.

With 2,400 pupils, the north Cardiff school has an immense exam timetable. On a busy day about 600 pupils sit GCSE, AS and A2 papers. Up to 19 rooms are used and the number of different exams taken is in double figures. The hall, the gym, the library - even the sixth-form common room - have all been commandeered as exam rooms.

The examinations office is in a state of organised chaos. A huge board covered in lists and diagrams plots the day's sessions. Boxes of completed scripts are piled high ready to be sent off. Spare wall clocks litter one table. Heads of departments who drop in to offer help say the mammoth size of the task has been "a real eye-opener".

Gareth Matthewson, the headteacher, said: "The A-level exam season started almost a month before it used to. As a result, AS has to be taught in two terms and it is just not enough. Teaching time for A2 has been longer so I do not know why they timetabled the AS exams before the A2 exams this year. It just does not make sense."

The head said exam fees have shot up from pound;80,000 to pound;120,000. Administration costs have increased and parents are being paid to invigilate. The total bill comes to about pound;200,000.

Bunching exams in the same subject has also been a problem. It was a deliberate attempt by the Government's exam watchdog to cut down on clashes and condense the exam burden. In reality, it is highly unpopular. Lower-sixth students Sian Reynolds and Carly Johnson had three psychology modules in succession.

Sian said: "By the last one my concentration had gone. I know I would have done better if I'd been able to sit it the next morning when I was fresh."

Seventeen-year-old Anna White sat four papers in one day - a total of six hours.

All the students agree that AS is nothing like GCSE. Daniel Xuereb, who starts A2 exams next week, said: "AS is supposed to be half way between GCSE and A-level but it is like being thrown straight into A-level."

Daniel's main problem is re-sits. He will sit five chemistry papers this summer - three of them re-sits.

At least the 18-year-old does not have to worry about maths. Along with more than a third of the candidates who sat AS maths last year, he failed. Examiners are investigating whether the papers were too difficult, but Daniel has dropped the subject.

Despite attempts by the Government to right the situation, Katie Regan, 17, is having the same experience this summer.

She said: "The pure maths paper was the worst 80 minutes of my life. I felt like everyone in the room was watching me fail. When the results come out it's going to be humiliating. You get grade A at GCSE and you think you are going to be able to cope. Your parents expect good grades because you have always had them. They don't understand how you can go from an A to a D."

Mr Edwards and his team go without their lunch break for yet another day. He said: "Schools are just not geared up for an exam system of this magnitude and complexity. But this is the only chance these students get. We cannot afford to make mistakes."

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