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Is AS-level working?

Reva Klein reports on some early responses.

The new AS-level syllabus has not been a resounding success so far, according to teachers who complain of having to hurtle their students through it at breakneck speed; nor, they say, has it been one with the students themselves.

Secondary headteachers have reported students buckling under the pressure of working 60-hour weeks, asking teachers if they can drop one of their four subjects because they are so overwhelmed. Some language teachers are voicing their dissatisfaction with the new AS, too. "We much preferred the A-level course," says Pat Hutchinson, head of modern foreign languages at King Edward VII language college in Sheffield. "It gave us more time and also opportunities for some fun. This course is very pressurised."

Added to the pressures on time are the two to three weeks that will be lost on study leave. "It means that the pacing is very frenetic. It doesn't allow for the depth that's required in language teaching," she says. She is less than impressed with the help offered by her exam board, AQA. "They sent us stuff at the beginning and offered one training session and that's been it. We've needed much more training. We all feel that there has not been enough preparation. It has been pushed on to us too quickly."

AQA, the biggest of the three examining boards, disputes this criticism. Spokesman George Turnbull says: "We gave regional in-service training meetings last spring and then in the autumn, attended by a total of 3,000 modern foreign language teachers, and the third INSET is scheduled after the exams. All the exam boards supply support and materials. Because of the new material that has been introduced, and the new specifications, some teachers who have not attended these meetings may not be as knowledgeable as they might be. Whenever new exams are introduced there is an element of criticism and apprehension. But the response we have been getting from teachers has been very good on the support and training we provide."

Another head of department using the same board, Pat Corcoran of Tring School in Hertfordshire, says staff feel they are working in the dark:

"Judging by the pre-release booklet, the standards seem to be aimed very high but we won't know what they are until we see the exams. I suspect the boards themselves are going to be in the dark until the exams."

George Turnbull points out that the "standards expeted are of students who have gone one year beyond GCSE level. We look at the standards of previous years and have lots on consultations on this issue. The standards are being monitored at every stage".

Pat Corcoran says she has heard colleagues from other departments agree that it is difficult to judge at what level their students are working. But like Pat Hutchinson in Sheffield, she finds it is the pacing that she and her staff are really having to grapple with. For teachers used to working on a two-year cycle, having to juggle a schedule of mocks in March, orals in April, and the written exam in MayJune leaves too little teaching time to cover the necessary ground .

One German teacher using Edexcel, who wishes not to be named, is concerned that, instead of building up students' vocabulary and working on nuance, "I have to keep a constant eye on teaching exam techniques and understanding rubrics. It's a particular issue since they are not allowed to take dictionaries into exams as they could in the old A-level and the listening and reading papers demand a wide vocabulary and grasp of nuance. I feel sorry for this first AS-level cohort. The exam boards will have to consider them in a special light".

The specimen paper, she says, is too difficult and the Edexcel specimen, the only one she has seen, is a composite of old exam papers. "I feel sorry for the exam boards, too," she admits. "They have had to prepare the exams at a terrific speed while still running the A2 paper. They clearly didn't have enough time."

The QCA says that "timetables for the exam periods have been constructed by the awarding bodies to maximise teaching time within the new framework". The QCA held a series of briefing meetings with awarding body representatives while the new A-levels were being developed "to ensure a clear understanding of the issues involved".

If teachers are having problems, a QCA spokesperson suggests, "any comments on a particular exam can be submitted to the awarding body on the Joint Council form made available to centres after each examination session". That is unlikely to comfort teachers struggling to cover everything required and also to motivate students to carry on with the course next year. It remains to be seen whether the bumper crop of A-level candidates for languages this year - at 20,000, double last year's numbers - will be reflected in the numbers choosing to go on to A2.

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