Is one measure of excellence being replaced with another? I doubt it

22nd August 2008 at 01:00
John Gallagher, Head of English, Stratford-upon-Avon Grammar School for Girls

Amid the annual August results-fest, spare a thought for a dying breed: the sixth formers who sat the Advanced Extension Award (AEA). Next year, one final cohort will sit them and then the qualification will be dropped to make way for A-level A* grades.

Should we just accept the passing of the AEA, reassured that the Government is replacing one measure of excellence with another? As an experienced teacher and examiner, I have my doubts.

For each of the 19 subjects where the AEA is available, only one board can offer it; so all candidates across the country sit the same paper and are marked to the same standard. In my subject, English, I'm convinced that it is the most demanding public exam on offer. And I should know, because this year I sat it myself**: a challenging three-hour paper, based on a booklet of demanding unseen texts, all on the theme of "transgression".

The texts ranged from the contemporary - Tom Stoppard and Simon Armitage - to the classic - Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer.

The six candidates who tackled this at my school, a selective girls grammar, clearly encountered "stretch and challenge". They enjoyed it; but in no way did they feel guaranteed a grade at the end of it (nor did I for that matter). The merits and distinctions that are awarded here had to be earned.

So what of the A* grade?

The QCA has already stipulated that this must be based on more demanding A2 work, rather than AS. But two of the most popular specifications - that of OCR and AQA's B spec - won't be examining candidates on unseen material at A2.

The former requires students to link their set text play to their set text poet, so no surprises there for the well-prepared; while AQA's published specimen paper is almost laughably predictable.

Never mind that many of this generation of candidates have already studied Macbeth, for example, in their Sats. They could now have to take on such topics as Shakespeare's "dramatic use . of occult and supernatural elements" in the Scottish play.

And as for some of the choices of "unseen" material? Take AQA's specification A paper on "Love through the Ages" and name the most obvious drama for this romantic theme. Let's just say it features two lovers and a balcony.

**The author received a distinction.

`Parents will need to believe the diplomas are effective'

Matthew Thorne will be teaching and managing the level 3 diploma in ICT at Farnborough Sixth Form College, Hampshire, from next month.

- How has the training been in preparation for the course?

It has been a real mixture. We have not had any full-day training by Edexcel. We were due to, but it was cancelled because of delays in finalising the specifications of the course.

In the end, someone came down to the college for a couple of hours to answer some of our questions. It is not what you would expect though, considering how important the courses are.

- What have you done to mitigate for the lack of training?

I have set up IT courses before, so have experience of designing units of study, lesson plans and assignments. Now we need to get into the class and teach it.

I feel confident that we will produce a good quality course for students, but it really has been down to us, rather than guidance from the exam board.

- Have students been keen to sign up?

We are expecting to teach the IT diploma to about 15 students, although we won't know the exact numbers until early September. The students who have expressed interest were very keen on the focus the course would give them and didn't seem concerned that it was the first year. They are excited by the content.

We have advertised the course in the prospectus, like all college courses, but I think some of the schools have been more active in promoting the diplomas.

- How have you found working in a consortium?

There are two colleges and nine schools working together and it seems to be working well. Teachers have got together to prepare materials and support each other.

- Will diplomas become the qualification of choice, as the Government predicts?

It all depends on the feedback from universities and employers. Everyone recognises A-levels. I don't see why diplomas can't become a course of choice in time, but parents will need to believe they are effective.

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