Relieved ministers celebrate AS grades

17th August 2001 at 01:00
But heads say the price of success was too high. Julie Henry reports on the first results from a new system as traditional A-levels bow out with the best grades ever

HEADS this week questioned the price of success as ministers and exam boards hailed better-than-expected results for the controversial AS-levels.

Schools said they had been forced to make Herculean efforts to overcome the myriad problems, which included clashing exam timetables, missing syllabuses and student overload, that dogged the first year of the new system.

About a quarter of a million 17-year-olds sat more than 750,000 AS papers, achieving an 86.6 per cent pass rate. The provisional results will come as a relief to ministers after widespread criticism of the way A-level reforms have been handled.

But while schools and colleges celebrated sixth-form success, they said it had come at a high price. Heather Guy, deputy head at Whitchurch high school, Cardiff, said: "Our AS results are better than we anticipated. They are extremely good - in the main subject areas around 90 per cent (passed). But I don't think concerns about AS were overblown. Teachers and students worked extraordinarily hard. A lot of things went by the wayside to produce these results."

Delia Smith, head of St Angela's school in Newham, east London, said:

"While we are pleased with our results, exam overload is at a ridiculous level. To test at 16, 17 and 18 is a patent nonsense."

At Colchester Sixth Form College, where more than 2,000 students took exams this summer, the AS pass rate was 94 per cent. Ian MacNaughton, head, said:

"The results do not change by one dot the things we said about exam pressure and workload."

But the AS-level pass rate (A to E grade) was lower than for the traditional A-level which yet again hit a record high this year.

The A-level pass rate rose for the 18th consecutive year to to 89.8 per cent, up 0.7 percentage points. The A grade proved harder to get at AS-level with 17 per cent achieving the top result, compared to to 18.6 per cent at A-level, up 0.8 percentage points on last year's figure.

The slightly lower grades at AS were dismissed by the exam boards as a consequence of teaching the qualification for the first time but could support claims that AS content was excessive and lesson time too short. At A-level, girls retained their lead: the proportion getting grade A was nearly one percentage point higher than for boys and 1.9 points higher for grades A to E.

The gender gap widened at AS-level. Girls outperformed boys by 4.2 percentage points at A to E and 3.2 points at A grade. The results provide more evidence that modular assessment and coursework, major features of the new qualification, suit girls better .

Vocational A-level grades were a major area of concern after poor results in early exams fuelled fears that the replacement for advanced vocational qualifiications had been pitched too high.

But the pass rate of 54.5 per cent is in line with Advanced GNVQ results. However, only 1 per cent of candidates achieved an A and just under 15 per cent of candidates achieved C or better. Concerns about the qualification are being investigated by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority. A report to ministers is due in December.

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