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The A-level challenge

While the Tomlinson Report advocates greater academic rigour, many students are struggling to cope. Sue Jones reports

Five out of six A-level students find the work much harder than they were led to expect before starting college or sixth-form studies, new research reveals.

For many, A-level study comes as a shock, and a significant minority are seriously undermined, the study shows.

A week after the Tomlinson review of 14-19 qualifications stressed the need for even more rigour at A-level, the research shows that the majority find them tough going.

However, most show great resilience. Despite the challenges of education reforms, youth culture and getting that first step on the career ladder, most A-level students are thriving and confident of academic success.

Three-quarters find their courses at least as interesting as they expected, and believe they will complete all or most of their subjects with good grades.

Eighty-three per cent of respondents found the work harder than they expected, and nearly half had underestimated the burden of written work.

Although most were happy with the number of subjects they were taking, nearly half wanted to change at least one of them. And 43 per cent said they were less confident about getting good grades than when they started the course.

The survey of almost 3,000 15 to 19-year-olds, carried out by education charity Exam Aid in six schools and colleges is published by the Association of Colleges.

Students' fears that they would not complete their studies successfully arose partly in school or college and partly from external factors.

Revision and exam preparation are significant issues, with nearly a third saying they had problems working at home. Although more than half the students divided their time equally between subjects, a quarter expect to spend less time on their weakest subjects, or drop them altogether.

And almost the same proportion think it likely they would drop a subject because of personality clashes with the teacher or a dislike of the teaching method. About one in 10 believes they might give up their studies altogether to earn money or look after dependants, but outside distractions make time management a big issue for the majority. For 70 per cent of students, social life is at least as important as exams. Six in 10 gave priority to hobbies and interests and 41 per cent to political and other causes, although only 14 per cent would put a part-time job before their academic work.

And although nearly nine in 10 students are at least as determined to get good results as they were when they started, almost a fifth think they might need to see a counsellor before they finish their course. Over half are no longer sure their courses will help them achieve their goals.

For most findings, gender differences were insignificant, but in attitudes to counselling the gap widens. A third of the boys might see someone seeking counselling as weak or not in control of their lives, compared with only 13 per cent of girls. This could significantly affect the way they try to deal with their problems. The boys and girls also had different perceptions of themselves and each other. The stereotypes of the girl who has her academic life under control but needs support for non-school or college problems and the socially tough but academically slapdash boy survive.

Girls think about one third of boys need help with time management and revision skills compared with about one fifth of their fellow females - and the boys agreed with this assessment. But while girls think that less than a fifth of girls and boys need help with problems outside school or college, boys think nearly a quarter of girls need this support.

Both sexes tend to think that other people are coping better than they are.

Overall, 22 per cent feel they themselves need help with problems outside school or college, 42 per cent with time management and 50 per cent with revision and coursework.

The only regional difference to emerge was that Northerners were slightly less likely than Southerners to say that they and their classmates might need help.

Exam Aid's general secretary, Bruce Harris, thinks that while about half of A-level students have relatively few problems, up to a quarter are experiencing multiple difficulties and may find it hard to seek advice.

He believes there are very basic issues that must be addressed and followed up by pastoral tutors if these students are to keep on track and fulfil their potential.

* Motivation can be undermined by non-academic issues, such as clashes with teachers, conflicting priorities and relating academic choices to future goals. These should be monitored and discussed.

* Induction procedures should leave students absolutely clear about the type and amount of work expected so that they are not taken by surprise and demoralised.

* Asking for advice or counselling should be presented positively so that students do not see it as a form of weakness. Teachers and lecturers should be aware that boys and girls may have different attitudes.

* Revision and time management are significant issues for many students and need pastoral and support time.

Exam Aid contacts: and

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