AS-levels broaden backsides, not minds

1st June 2001 at 01:00
h, I am really looking forward to June! When spring has sprung, the birds are chirruping in the trees and the air is filled with the sweet scent of new-mown grass, mingled with the whiff of fear and the frantic scratching of Biros on worryingly blank sheets of paper. Yes, it's public examination time again - that joyous month when by long tradition sweating 16 and 18-year-olds file anxiously into gaping halls all around the country, still trembling wildly from last night's revision-induced caffeine overdose, ready to scrawl frantically for two-and-a-half hours about any subject upon which one of our esteemed examination boards sees fit to quiz them.

And now - oh joy, oh joy! Seventeen-year-olds will be joining them. Last year I had the somewhat dubious pleasure of GCSEs filling up my every waking moment with such things as Food Technology Theory examinations and those powerful sedatives, Intermediate Level Science Revision Guides.

I was hoping (as I passed all my old study aids through the shredder with a protracted sigh of relief) that this summer was going to pass gently without any of that silly interference from Edexcel et al.

How very silly of me not to realise that young people can never be allowed to pass a summer without being examined, probed and generally messed about. And so our beloved Department for Education produced these exciting, shiny, spanking-new AS-levels. Yes, education gods: if you were trying to introduce a little more stress into the lives of yet another group of unsuspecting students and teachers, go and give yourselves a pat on the back. I now see that some top independent schools are boycotting the exams so they can watch the rest of us flounder for a while. One anonymous "top head" says that "teaching time is significantly strained by the new curriculum". In the state sector, we already know that the pressure to take extra subjects in the lower sixth has pushed up set sizes considerably, and there are reports from the Secondary Heads Association survey of drop-out rates going up.

I sympathise with the drop-outs. There are so, so many reasons why this new "system" makes me want to turn purple and throw myself at any convenient soft furnishingsthat there is no way I can catalogue them all here. I will try to give a brief summary of the factors that account for the scars on the cat and the teethmarks on the chair-legs.

Firstly, there is the immense pointlessness. As unnecessary changes go it ranks right up there with the introduction of the triangular tea-bag. Perhaps if the system had undergone a significant overhaul or totally embraced the gruelling International Baccalaureate the pain?? would have seemed at least meaningful.

As it stands, an entire year-group is vaguely mystified as to exactly why it is being forced to take A-levels twice, and to pretend to embrace an extra subject. They say that our base of learning is being broadened by the extra subject.

Shouldn't it be obvious that the artsy lot just do more words-related subjects, like my sneaking theatre studies in to join English, French and history while the science lot just take on more science-type things? I find it a tad peculiar that at 16 we can get married, join the armed forces and indulge in all kinds of bouncy sexual practices, yet are not deemed responsible enough to decide whether we wish to study arts or sciences. The only thing that is broadening is my backside as a result of not having time to do games anymore.

Do they realise how much it depresses us to reduce great and real things three years running to mere modules? Take English: Dr Faustus is a tremendous read - lots of soap-opera anguish and misery and even nudity thrown in - but the gloss goes off it when it is called module 1.5.

Has nobody even considered the psychological effect that three consecutive years of exams are going to have on sixth-formers? After their final A-level exam most people feel an irrepressible urge to consume dangerous quantities of vodka and do alarming things to wheelie-bins involving petrol and naked flames. But now there are going to be two years of celebrating teenagers on the loose, one of which still has a whole year of study and exams to come.

Look, we needed this Lower Sixth year to learn to enjoy learning again after GCSE Hell. They've taken that breathing space away from us. Bastards.

Rose Heiney is 16 and three-quarters

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