How attainable is AS?

15th June 2001 at 01:00
The new exam syllabus could be failing the very students it is aimed at, says Charles Reed

Following an OCR conference earlier this year for teachers of the new AS-level in modern languages I felt decidedly upbeat about the prospects for my Year 12 teaching group. The AS-level was claimed to be pitched one grade higher than the top GCSE grade - a realistic, attainable target for a mixed-ability cohort.

Indeed, I have enjoyed teaching AS-level this year. I wrote a scheme of work which covered the prescribed grammar and topic areas; as a result Year 12 has had an injection of purpose and pace, and many of the pupils have made swift progress. But as we reached March, a two-week Easter break on the horizon and then an oral in May, I began to feel concerned.

In effect the content has had to be delivered in a term and a half. To afford students the best opportunity of exam success has meant focusing on the specific skills required in March. Class time has been sacrificed to the nitty-gritty of technique and timed responses.

A room change meant I was teaching German in a cookery room and my class pleaded with me to be allowed to bake German cakes. It was a great idea but I had reservations about the two lessons I could ill-afford to lose. I would like to show them a German film but this would also take up precious time.

Within the group I have noticed a distinct polarisation of abilities. There is an increasing gap between the most able pupils, who have thrived on the rapid introduction of new tenses and structure, and those eaker pupils - the GCSE BC graders to whom this course is supposed to be a realistic and attainable option - who are increasingly overwhelmed by the speed and amount of new structures and skills demanded of them.

I am concerned that these young people - who are not necessarily gifted linguists but hard-working, open-minded students - who have opted to study a language further based on a positive key stage 4 experience, are too soon being fed a diet of exam-oriented material that allows little time for cultural enrichment and creativity within the language - surely a key principle of broadening the curriculum post-16.

I feel we are about to let down these very students who were supposed to benefit from the extension of the curriculum. They will encounter an exam that will underline how much they do not know rather than flag up the progress they have made.

Surely with so many new skills included in the OCR exam schedule the claim that this is merely one grade higher than the best at GCSE is misleading. Rather, these are a watered-down version of the skills demanded at A-level. In my experience it is in the spring term of Year 13 that these specific exam skills and grammatical awareness slot together, and a steep learning curve ensues as sixth-formers head towards the summer exams. Year 12 students are being denied the time to mature into the skills required and I wonder what the students who will give up the AS have gained from it.

Charles Reed is head of German at Marlwood school, Alveston, South Gloucestershire

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