Mixed reaction to A-level changes

Moves to change the AS qualification and restrict the number of A-level syllabuses on offer has drawn a mixed reaction from social scientists.

The changes, announced last week by Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard, were designed to enable students to broaden the number of subjects they study and to answer criticisms that there are too many exam boards producing too many syllabuses to ensure consistent standards of assessment.

However, further consideration is being given to whether the number of A-level boards should be cut back. Labour's shadow education and employment secretary David Blunkett has even suggested they should be reduced to one board.

Leading figures in psychology, politics and sociology have given a moderate welcome to the go-ahead for one-year accredited AS courses but warn against any reduction in the number of A-level syllabuses to choose from.

Geoff Howarth, chairman of the Association for Teachers of Psychology and a principal examiner for NEAB, says the move to restrict syllabuses shows a misunderstanding of how the boards work for a lot of A-level subjects. He says in psychology there are three boards offering different syllabuses but all of them are comparable. "The psychology world is relatively small, so we are able to maintain standards across the boards," he says. "And there is a healthy rivalry to offer different yet comparable A-levels."

Clive Thomas, chairman of the Politics Association, feels the attempts to encourage students to do a broader range of subjects with two or more one-year AS-levels could benefit smaller subjects like politics and encourage them to take them up. "I would hope that if the politics teaching is exciting, people will want to continue and convert up to the full A-level," he says.

By contrast, any restriction on the number of boards offering politics (currently five), while being an administratively convenient way to ensure standards, might not be educationally the best way. "At the moment you have a wide choice. It would be sad to see that reduced," Mr Thomas says.

Mike Haralambos, chairman of Causeway Press and author of the best-selling A-level and GCSE sociology textbooks, warned that a cut in the number of exam boards would reduce competition and the quality of exam content would suffer.

He says he was alarmed by a suggestion from Mr Blunkett that there should be one board, with a single syllabus for each subject and pupils working from one book, as they do in Switzerland. "The thought is absolutely horrendous. In the past textbooks have had an important influence on the exam syllabuses and the content of exams - but with a single syllabus every publisher would slavishly follow that syllabus and you'll get little room for creativity and innovation in publishing," he says.

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