Smart students play to their strengths

The leap in grades brought the usual grumbles about standards but schools see other reasons for the record rise in the pass rate. Julie Henry reports

THE biggest rise in A-level passes since the "gold standard" began and a huge uptake in AS-levels could mean near-perfect results by 2004.

As schools and students celebrate a record rise in the pass rate to 94.3 per cent, national figures show the reforms introduced in 2000 have produced a fundamental change in the nature of sixth-form study.

The emerging new pattern further complicates the debate over standards. Provisional figures show that thousands of students have opted out of the full A-level. Entries have fallen by 6 per cent to 704,000, while A grades were up by 2.1 per cent to just over a quarter.

As The TES revealed last week, pupils are not going on to A2 in subjects where they did poorly at AS. Often they do an AS-level rather than a third A-level in their second sixth-form year. The national figures show a massive 25 per cent increase in AS take-up to just under a million entries.

John Milner, convener of the Joint Council for General Qualifications, denied that this sea-change represented a fall in standards because AS is easier than A2.

He said: "Standards are being maintained. A-levels are worth what they were last year, the year before and indeed in 1951 (the year they were introduced)."

He was pleased students were taking advantage of the flexibility that Curriculum 2000 gives to drop their worst subjects. "We are moving away from the dreadful problem when 20 per cent failed at A-level at the end of two years."

Robert Dilley, head of Coopers school, Chislehurst, Kent, where the A-level pass rate rose from 91 to 95 per cent, said the AS-level acted as a filter. Only those pupils who will do well have gone on to full A-level. A lot of our pupils are taking only two full A-levels but taking up AS-levels from scratch in the upper sixth."

Professor Alan Smithers, from Liverpool University, said students were taking AS instead of a full A-level rather than using it as a stepping stone, creating two tiers of university applicant.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, claimed a genuinely broad curriculum remained as elusive as ever and called for a baccalaureate-style system.

The phenomenon of "self selection" - pupils dropping weaker subjects after a year - led to a huge fall in A-level maths entries of more than 12,000. More than a third of pupils who stuck with the subject got an A. John Guy, head of Farnborough sixth-form college, in Hampshire, blamed the Government's exam watchdog for bowing to the university maths lobby and making the A-level harder.

However, pupils were not put off AS maths with numbers up by nearly 10,000 on 2001. The AS failure rate was 22 per cent - once again higher than any other subject.

The overall AS-level pass rate dropped by 0.1 percentage points to 86.5 per cent. The percentage of grade As rose by 1 point to just under a fifth of entries.

When it came to getting grade As female students outperformed male in virtually all subjects in both AS and A-level, supporting the suggestion that modular courses suit girls better than boys.

Entries surged in "softer" subjects. Media studies A-level rose by nearly a quarter to 20,172 and AS entries increased by 8,000. Psychology take-up increased by nearly 3,000 at A-level and 14,000 at AS-level. However, entries for new vocational A-levels barely equalled entry figures of the advanced General National Vocational Qualification they replaced. The 75,000 uptake is a blow to a government that puts work-related learning at the top of its agenda.

Entries for the vocational AS-level, only available in four subjects, rose from 5,700 to 12,411. However, across the whole of the UK there were only 73 entries in AS-level engineering and just 22 girls took the vocational A-level in the subject. Professor Smithers said: "These vocational qualifications have just not taken off."

The new world-class tests for high-flying 18-year-olds in 17 subjects attracted nearly 7,000 entries: nearly a third gained a merit and 17 per cent a distinction. The tests are intended to help universities choose between top candidates.

However, new research published this week by London University's King's College claims A-levels are a poor predictor of who does well at university.

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