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Modules make headway

The modular A-level is a complicated animal. Nicholas Pyke tracks it down. Sir Rhodes Boyson, former education minister and right-wing MP, says that modular A-levels are shocking news and should be banned.

The exam boards say that Sir Rhodes should be banned from his regular summer spot on the news pages. Indeed, according to the Associated Examining Board, he would not know a modular A-level if it greeted him on the streets of his Brent East constituency. If this were true, he would not be alone as the modular A-level is a new and complicated animal.

The principle of breaking down courses into separately examined chunks or modules is by no means novel. Modularisation is already popular in further and higher education where the old culture of relying on one terminal exam is proving unfeasible as more, and more varied, students enter the system.

Until recently, modular courses had made little headway in the world of A-levels, touching only a few per cent of candidates.

But, two years ago, the exam boards were ordered to revise their syllabuses for English, maths and science. They seized the chance to write modular alternatives to their straightforward A-levels which they figured would be popular.

Their optimism was justified as the new courses this year accounted for one-fifth of the 750,000 A-levels taken, including half of the entrants in some science subjects.

How different, then, are modular courses? And are they any easier than the traditional route based on a final exam?

The actual business of examining pupils is different. Broadly speaking, those on traditional courses take two, three-hour papers testing them on two years of sixth-form study. Candidates on modular courses, however, sit six papers, lasting one-and-a-half hours each. Four of these can be spread over the course of the two years of study.

There are some restrictions. For example, rules set by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority insist that two of the modular papers (a third of the marks) be taken at the end of the final term, to give the appearance of a final exam.

Nor is it the case that students can take the modular exams whenever they like because most exam boards have only two sittings a year: in the case of the Northern Examination and Assessment Board, for example, these are in the spring and the summer. In practical terms, the examination load is likely to be weighted towards the second year when the students have gained extra knowledge.

There appear to be some advantages: as predicted, the pass rate for modular exams was slightly higher. The exam boards believe that consistent work patterns and short-term objectives may help motivate pupils. Spreading the examinations also decreases the risks posed by illness or stress.

The academic benefits are not clear-cut. This year's modular results also produced a lower percentage of A grades, suggesting that the top marks are harder to achieve over two years than in two, three-hour papers.

Candidates heading for failure on a modular course are unlikely to enter the final two exams - partly accounting for the higher pass rate.

Much of the criticism of modular A-levels has been to do with candidates re-sitting individual modules as many times as they like. This is not perhaps the easy option it might appear. Opportunities for these re-sits are limited to twice a year. Pupils will also have to attempt re-takes while the rest of the class and the teachers are concentrating on different material.

None the less, in response to concern that one sort of A-level, the standard "linear" model, may appear to be harder than the modular one, the Government has announced that it will limit the number of times that any candidate can re-take a module.

One benefit is not in doubt: pupils failing one or two modules will not be put to the effort and expense of re-sitting the entire A-level. But they have to pay for the privilege of this more flexible route which, with all the additional examination and marking involved, is a third more expensive than normal models.

When it comes to content, the two routes - modular and linear - are close. Where possible, the exam boards save time and money by ensuring that both sorts of syllabus examine shared material with similar questions. So in the NEAB's A-level physics, for example, there is a shared core of mechanics, electricity, matter and materials, waves, nuclear physics and quantum phenomena.

This core is also of advantage to students who may wish to change from one method of assessment to the other, or from A- to AS-level.

In this way, says Kathleen Tattersall, chief executive of the NEAB, modular courses may be providing just the sort of safety net that all but the brightest pupils require. Candidates on the traditional routes risk two years of work on pass or fail.

However, modular candidates who don't quite make the grade at least end up with module passes - possibly enough for an AS-level.

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