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Students put case against final exam

Sir Ron Dearing commissioned five research reports to back his proposals. The TES analyses their findings.

Assessment by terminal examination is unfair and should be abolished, A-level and general national vocational qualification students have told researchers working for Sir Ron Dearing's final report.

Out of a sample of students from 159 schools and colleges, only 7 per cent of A-level students and 2 per cent of Advanced GNVQ students thought that final examinations were a fair way to assess two years' work. They said that A-level grades should always be accompanied by a written assessment of the student's performance over the course. The majority favoured a combination of coursework and modular exams. GNVQ students criticised the crudeness of the multiple choice assessment during the course.

The students also said that GCSE was an inadequate preparation for the demands of A-level (though not for Advanced GNVQ), particularly in science, and that prospective science A-level students should be advised to take separate science subjects at GCSE.

Sir Ron Dearing was particularly keen to canvass the "consumers" for his 16-19 review, and many of the students' recommendations seem to have been absorbed into the final report. The young people told researchers they wanted a broader, "more relevant" A-level curriculum divided into more manageable units, more "core" and work-related skills taught at A-level, more reliable advice about choosing between academic and vocational subjects, less pressure to specialise at such an early age, higher status for GNVQ and more awareness of it among employers and higher education institutions.

Many of the research findings on students' attitudes to the 16-19 qualifications structure simply confirm the findings of previous research or anecdotal evidence. For instance, performance at GCSE was the main factor influencing students' decisions about whether to opt for A-level or Advanced GNVQ, with the best performers predictably opting for the former.

There were dramatic differences in the grades that A-level and GCSE students had achieved at GCSE:the majority of the former had eight or more A-C passes, while the majority of the GNVQ group had three or four (14 per cent had none).

Students who rejected GNVQ did so because they were worried that the qualification was not widely recognised by universities and employers. Many GNVQ students complained of having to explain to universities or employers what an advanced GNVQ was. Others were worried about standards or felt that GNVQ did not offer the right range of subjects. Students taking the International Baccalaureat gave different reasons for not considering GNVQ; 27 per cent thought they were "too vocational" and 22 per cent had never heard of them.

Those who chose GNVQ did so because they wanted a more practical course or because they did not perform well in exams (GNVQ is not as heavily dependent on a final exam as A-level). But there was no sign of "parity of esteem" - A-levels were perceived as superior by both groups, and some of the GNVQ students said they would have preferred to take A-levels if they had been more academically able.

Students' verdicts on the type of person most likely to take GNVQ or A-level were caustic: A-level pupils are "brainy, more committed, but stuck-up and boring" while GNVQ students are "less committed, generally not very quick, but more varied".

Several students said they they had been rushed into making the wrong decision about which course to take and complained of being misled by the way the school or college promoted the course. GNVQ students also complained that teachers were not always familiar with the course structure and assessment.

Copies of a summarised version of Sir Ron Dearing's report, Review of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds, will be sent to all schools after Easter. Copies of the main report, minus appendices and research studies (154 pages), are available from School Curriculum and Assessment Authority Publications, PO Box 235, Hayes, Middlesex, UB3 1HF, price Pounds 5. The inclusive 700-page report is available, price Pounds 80. More information is available by ringing the SCAA publications hotline 0181 5614499.

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