The burden of examinations

8th June 2001 at 01:00
"SHAMBLES" and "nightmare" were the words on teachers' lips in colleges and schools this week when they and their pupils grappled with the first batch of AS-level exams. As our report shows, schools are coping with overladen timetables, spiralling costs and confusion about how the exams will be marked and where the grade boundaries will fall. One student is taking eight-and-a-half hours of exams in a single day. It cannot be right that her future prospects depend on a schedule more demanding and more stressful than that of many of her peers.

Worst of all, there remain niggling doubts about whether it is all going to be worthwhile. Will universities, notoriously cautious and conservative bodies, take much, if any, notice of the new AS-levels? Or will they simply do as they have always done, and base admission on three A2 grades in the subjects most closely related to the applicants' chosen course? The purpose of the reform is laudable: to broaden sixth-form study and give pupils who decide to leave teir courses after a year a useful qualification. Teachers have long pressed for a wider spread of subjects at A-level, and in the absence of the political will for more radical change, they will want to make AS-level work. But ministers have seriously underestimated the upheaval caused by the new system.

Ultimately, they will need to look at the burden of public examinations. This week, some leading independent schools said that they might abandon GCSEs and enter candidates for only AS and A2. Many teachers in state schools will share their view that schools are spending too much time examining and too little teaching. Under the new system, pupils are being examined for two terms and taught for four. In the days of the old A-level, they were taught for five and examined for one. As the number of tests between the ages of five and 18 proliferates, the time has come to consider different forms of assessment that will involve fewer external examinations and depend more on teachers' judgment.

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