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Modular A-levels under fire as pass rate rises

Statistics produced to accompany this year's Higher and Standard grade results coincide with renewed controversy south of the border over record A-level results.

Next week's A-level results are likely to show a further improvement in overall pass rates of 1-2 per cent, according to estimates from exam boards.

Even more discussion has been generated this year than normal because the new modular A-levels are thought to have boosted the results. It is the first time such courses, which allow students to retake sections of the course they have initially failed, have played a significant part in English, maths and science results. The final written exam accounts for only 30 per cent of marks.

At the same time, the Government has announced it will accept Sir Ron Dearing's recommendation to limit resits for each module, to ensure that modular courses are not seen as softer than traditional A-levels.

Modular courses have proved particularly popular in English, maths and science. This year they will account for as many as a fifth of the 750, 000 A-level entries, and two-thirds of maths and science results. The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, however, says they are unlikely to have any dramatic impact on a pass rate which has been steadily improving by around 1 per cent a year, from 78 per cent in 1981 to 84 per cent in 1995.

Kathleen Tattersall, chief executive of the Northern Examination and Assessment Board, said: "There is no firm foundation for the speculation that there has been a 2 per cent rise in the pass rate. The exam boards have not as yet collated the data."

Until this year modular courses affected only 4 per cent of entries. The only study undertaken so far, at Newcastle University, suggested that the average modular grade in mathematics was a C, compared with a D on traditional courses. But the sample was necessarily small.

Assessment as you go means weak candidates are unlikely to enter the final exam and so will be excluded from the figures.

One interesting feature will be the effect of modular courses on maths and science results. These have steadily improved at the expense of specialisation. Increasingly only the brightest pupils embark on such courses.

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