Path out of exam gridlock

15th June 2001 at 01:00
Geoff Lucas looks at ways of relieving the stress of the exam-heavy senior years at school

expect the last thing Estelle Morris, the new Education Secretary, wanted to hear was an admission from Nick Tate, former chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, that the new A-level reforms introduced just 12 months ago were a mistake.

Two weeks ago, in the columns of The TES, he said: "Unwittingly we have ended up with too many exams: modular exams, A-levels, key skills. I accept a full share of responsibility for that."

In the Sunday Times last weekend, he remarked that students were now over-examined, forced to take crucial GCSE, AS and A2 exams in three successive years. This followed a TES leader calling for new forms of assessment with fewer external exams and relying more on teachers' judgment.

Encouragingly, Ms Morris has shown her willingness to listen by asking the QCA to review the new exams. I would like to suggest six options for the future of the AS exam. They are in order of increasing difficulty and, perhaps, attractiveness.

* Explain the AS-levels better. It was always intended that schools should have the option of treating the new A-level (of which the AS is the first part) in a "linear" fashion, with all the exams taken at the end of the upper sixth. So far, only a handful of schools appear to be doing this, although it would defer the assessment burden which is the real target of criticism. But it would not reduce the overall burden. For that, more radical solutions are needed. See below.

* Promote the AS more vigorously. So far, schools and colleges have experienced the pain, but none of the gain, of the new AS-levels. The key is real support from higher education and encouragement to students to take a contrasting subject as their fourth choice in the interests of breadth of study. If HE takes a lead, students will follow. This is one clear case where HE has a lot to answer for.

* "Unhook" the AS from the A2. This would turn the AS into a distinct, separate qualification. Marks from the AS would not carry forward and count towards the A-level. The A2 (second half of A-level) would, in effect, also be a discrete exam. This would put the AS and A-level on a similar footing to the Scotish system of highers and advanced highers. In itself, this would do little to alleviate the key problem of growing pressure on students, staff, examiners and resources. But it would open up the option below.

* Bypass the AS. Students going on to the full A-level could "bypass" the AS exam. Schools would simply provide an internal judgment of students' performance. For most students, it would be the A2 which would remain the "high stakes" external assessment needed for entry to university. Only in subjects that students intended to drop would there be a need to take the external exam of AS, normally in the summer of the lower sixth.

* Make the AS part of an overarching diploma. One way of giving an impetus to breadth post-16 would be to set the AS within the framework of a diploma which required certain subject combinations. Such discussions have been taking place through the Joint Associations Curriculum Group.

* Review the AS as part of the whole 14-19 phase. We now have the educational equivalent of a motorway bottleneck. The only way to ease the pressure is to jettison one of the exams or space them out better.

The Green Paper on schools before the election talked of GCSE becoming a "progress check" rather than a terminal goal or exit point for most students. It also floated the idea of more students taking GCSE at age 15. If this were to become the norm, students would then have a less concentrated three-year period in which to combine breadth and depth of study. This would include extra-curricular and enrichment activities which appear to be casualties of the current system. Some critics would want to dispense with GCSE altogether, making the new AS the new 16-plus exam.

It may be of some comfort to Nick Tate that, if he got it wrong, he was not alone. There are many who still believe the basic model is right but that implementation has been badly handled.

The question for the Govern-ment now is whether short-term changes will be able to overcome longer-term, deep-rooted design faults. It is imperative that the QCA gets it right for the future.

Geoff Lucas is secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference that represents independent schoolsHave Your Say on exam reform at

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