More takers for maths and science, please

29th March 1996 at 00:00
The demand for A-levels is great. There have been questions whether all A-levels are equally demanding, and also whether equal standards are required by all awarding bodies. There has also been concern about the possible impact on standards of modular A-levels.

An independent study, and another by SCAA, suggest that the demands made in some subjects are greater than in others. This applies to a group which includes mathematics, physics, chemistry and some modern foreign languages. Assuming these results are valid, there can be no levelling down in standards. University departments are already concerned about the adequacy of existing requirements in mathematics and some sciences.

On the question of same standards required by the different awarding bodies, there are problems in ensuring that common standards are maintained. The sheer number of alternative syllabuses available and the range of options within a syllabus, make close comparisons difficult.

I have no doubt about the integrity of the awarding bodies or of their concerns to maintain standards. But with the demands made upon the system, present arrangements need reinforcing.

There should be no reduction in the required standard in any A level subject. The regulatory and awarding bodies should review the evidence indicating differing standards and raise the demand of any subjects found to be decidedly below the average.

Each school and college should have a formal procedure before changing awarding bodies.

Regulatory and awarding bodies should reduce the number of syllabuses and options to levels where they can be satisfied that equal standards prevail.

The awarding bodies should maintain a comprehensive archive so that there is a better basis to assess standards over time. Similar archives should be set up for GNVQs. The regulatory bodies should undertake an in-depth review of standards, so that over five years all subjects are covered. They should monitor the comparability of standards in modular and traditional linear A-levels, and publish an annual report.

Both linear and modular A-levels should be retained but: * the final examination in a modular scheme of assessment should count for not less than 30 per cent of the total marks, and should test understanding of the syllabus as a whole; * the number of resits of any one module should be limited; * there should be a common timetable for modular exams, based on two sittings a year, probably in January and June.

* consideration should be given to combining the traditional and modular A-levels into a unified approach.

There are concerns about the declining proportion of students choosing to specialise in mathematics and the sciences; about standards and about the range of syllabuses, which means that universities have to begin teaching at a lower level than if students had a more common syllabus.

Maths: The concerns about A-levels have been expressed particularly strongly, with the comment that a four-year degree course may be required. Reference has been made to the need for more algebra, to limited perceptions of precision and proof, and a declining ability to handle multi-step problems, and a lack of facility with number.

Schools and colleges should encourage students proposing to take A-levels in maths to take a GCSE paper in additional maths.

The regulatory bodies should encourage a new, challenging GCSE course in additional mathematics, limited to grades A*-C, based on existing certificates. Regulatory bodies should support courses to bridge the gap between GCSE and A-level.

The regulatory bodies should enter into discussion about the requirements for A-level maths.

Schools and colleges should encourage students to make more use of further mathematics courses to supplement A-levels.

The regulatory bodies should investigate A-levels maths courses designed for specific purposes.

The sciences: Regulatory bodies should also establish whether the current range of GCSE courses provides both broad science education and preparation for A-levels.

Schools should use 20 per cent of curriculum time for double science, as urged by the Royal Society.

The regulatory bodies should consider increasing the size of the A-levels subject core and reducing the number of syllabuses. Awarding bodies should consider if enough of the demanding material from the syllabus features in the exams.

SCAA should assess the provision for chemistry in the light of the study of standards over time.

The regulatory bodies should develop a programme of further research into the attitudes of parents, pupils and teachers to mathematics and the sciences. With the Teacher Training Agency, they should encourage a greater take-up.

The NCVQ should continue to monitor the progress of the science GNVQ, with a view to providing an additional source of scientists.

AS-levels: The present AS was introduced to encourage a broader range of studies. It has not succeeded. But greater breadth of study post-16 is still desirable. A reformulated AS would aim to secure that objective and offer a realistic goal for those unlikely to complete A-level courses.

The new AS should replace the existing one and should represent the first half of the A-levels syllabus so that the two can be taught together. The reformulated AS should extend the content of the GCSE. It should be called the "advanced subsidiary", graded in the same way as the full A-level, and should attract half the numerical score given to the full A-level in the proposed new UCAS tariff.


In-depth review of standards

Modular A-levels to assessed partly by final exam, worth at least 30% of marks

Limited number of resits of modules

New advanced subsidiary (AS) level to represent the first half of A-level syllabus

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