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A step before the A-level hurdles

In the wake of the recent A-level results - again grades are high and the question of standards is debated - I am left feeling sorry for the students who knew (as did their teachers) that A-levels weren't for them, but what else was there to do post-GCSE? GNVQs and other alternatives with equally strange names simply lack credibility.

Sir Ron Dearing's recent proposals for an intermediate exam-ination would help improve the post-GCSE regime and pick up the students currently let down by the system. The idea should be implemented as soon as possible.

What went wrong was that radical changes to exams at 16 have not been followed by equivalent reforms for the sixth form. To an extent that was not appreciated at the time, the old O-level was the ideal - even necessary - preparation for A-levels.

Now teachers and students find that the skills which brought success at GCSE are poor preparation for the traditional A-level courses which remain basically unchanged. The introduction of coursework, modular courses and AS-levels has made little impact on this problem.

GCSEs and A-levels are the only school exams recognised by universities and the world at large. The only variation to make sense would be an exam set to standards half way between the two. The whole A-level group in each subject would enter at the end of Lower Sixth so there would be no additional teaching requirement.

For those who want to reach higher than GCSE, but who can't or don't want to cope with A-levels, it would be a respected and understandable certificate gained after one year's post-GCSE study. For those proceeding to A-level it would be an encouraging half-way house leaving their skills to be perfected in that last year.

Such an exam would be a much firmer guide to universities of likely final results than the present system of predicted grades. It would ginger up Lower Sixth students who feel that real exams are a comfortable distance away and who relax into what they see as student mode as soon as they cast off their school uniform.

It would formalise the normal summer exams and provide a real incentive for hard work. Most importantly it would be of value to those students who embark on A-levels flush with reasonable grades at GCSE and who quickly realise - too late - that they've chosen the wrong route.

Unless and until there is a radical reform of A-levels, an intermediate exam set and certificated by the exam boards would fill a real gap in the present system and Sir Ron's initiative should be grasped.

Mary Kilbride recently retired as head of St Mary's Convent, Worcester. She has been involved with sixth forms for 25 years

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