Pressure points

11th May 2001 at 01:00
Bryan Dye's website is filling with teachers' concerns about the new ASA-levels.

For a decade teachers have been talking about standards in A-levels falling. I took my own A-level exam in 1969, and began teaching A-level in 1980, and because I agree wholeheartedly that exams have become easier, I recently wrote about it on my website,, quoting as evidence examples of past exam questions.

In 1971 candidates were asked: "If a+b+c = a2+b2+c2 = a3+b3+c3 = 2, find by considering values of (a+b+c)2 and (a+b+c)3, or otherwise, the values of ab+bc+ca, and abc. Hence find the equation whose roots are a, b and c." By contrast, 25 years later they were being asked to "find a set of 5 numbers that had mode 3, median 4 and mean 5".

Extreme examples maybe, but nevertheless standards were slipping. Now, inevitably, it appears that QCA has swung the pendulum back the other way. Going by the experiences of the 70 students in the ASA2 groups at my school, the current system seems far too demanding for the majority of those concerned. One A-grade GCSE student said to me recently: "I can't factorise; I never could factorise."

Messages posted by students around the country on the BBC's ASGuru site (www. should strike alarm bells:

"Something isn't right here. We haven't even started P2... For us it is all new, it's all going too fast and even the tutors admit they don't have enough time... The amount of work I'm getting has meant that I can't revise the work I've already done... Everyone is really scared that they will fail."

In Year 12 we have to plan for three examination deadlines in June and create revision time too, so in September the students have to hit the ground running. We were told that AS was to be easier than A2 but it does not feel like that to me, or the rest of my department, who are all long-serving A-level teachers. Surely very few students would have been ready to take a module exam this last January, although apparently it was feasible in other subjects.

Immediately after writing these remarks on my website, I received a number of e-mailed responses. Carol Jones, who teaches in a comprehensive, said:

"We are experiencing exactly the same problems - we are a high-achieving comprehensive, but I hear the local grammar school is worried too. Itdoes not seem to be exam-board specific either."

Roy Bayliss, a head of maths, said: "I have been using a modular scheme for some years. We also now find that we are extremely rushed. I do not see how we are going to get anywhere near being ready in time. Many of our pupils are in need of time to consolidate but I have to push on to meet the deadline in spite of the fact that they are now doing four subjects rather than three."

From the Island School in Hong Kong, Paul Jackson commented: "We are under unbelievable pressure to get the modules finished in time for the students to be able to revise properly. This means, in effect, being finished by the end of April so that students get May to do practice papers. We used to finish Year 12 teaching at the end of June or early July. We have as much to cover but two months less to teach it in, and one period less per week. The whole thing is crazy."

The specifications encourage the use of graphical calculators, which I am in favour of. But few AS students - those who, ironically, may benefit the most - are going to shell out pound;60 on a short course on how to use them. And as a consequence their attempts at studying functions and graphs are like attending tennis lessons without a racket.

One principle of the AS was to broaden for one year the education of students post-16, to encourage them to study four or even five subjects rather than the standard three. But that aim seems to clash with the high academic demands of this subject. Education Secretary David Blunkett announced recently a new AS-level course, Use of Mathematics, to be targeted at all A-level students not taking A-level maths. If, as seems likely, huge numbers of students perform poorly in the coming exams, will they all resit at the end of Year 13, or re-do the course, or turn away from maths completely, wishing they had never attempted to broaden their horizons?

Will this be the target audience for Mr Blunkett's new AS-level? Is the intention of this new course to create a two-tier system: those who take A-level maths as of old, and those who pick up a Use of Mathematics AS-level? It sounds as though the principles of the new AS are on their way out even before they have set foot in the door.

Bryan Dye is head of maths of The Hewett School, Norwich and the creator of

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