Right intentions, wrong results

30th March 2001 at 01:00
Unintended consequences are always vexing. I find it hard to believe that any chairman ever rapped a shiny mahogany table and said: "Right, chaps. We need a way to overload school budgets with more exam fees, increase the size of teaching groups for 17-year-olds, give universities another reason to select from the most middle-class schools, and above all, the game plan is to cause as much stress and worry as possible to the kids in that pesky slack year between GCSE and A-level. We have to stop them doing sport and plays and choirs and clubs and community work. Oh, and it would be good if we could sow a bit of alarm in the exam-marking community too, so that England can achieve the sort of stimulating chaos that Scotland got last year. Now - thinking caps on - how can we do all this?" No, they didn't mean it. What government intended, in inventing the new A-level system, was to broaden the outlook of sixth-formers by making them study more things, for longer. It wanted a sort of I-Bac Lite. The DFEE's Malcolm Wicks wrote to The Times last week saying that it is: "bringing greater breadth of study, while maintaining rigour". The new system, known as ASA2, has, he agrees, "meant harder work for students, bringing them in line with the norm in other European countries".

That teaching groups are larger is fine by Mr Wicks, who reasons that it was always an anomaly for them to be smaller than other secondary school groups, and "there is no reason why sixth forms cannot manage a few extra students, since discipline is not as big an issue at that age".

Ah, I see. The point of having small groups is not that a sixth-former needs to discuss and argue face-to-face, to be drawn out and taught to think rather than merely taking notes. It's just a matter of keeping order, so as long as the students aren't throwing rocks, it matters not a jot if the sets soar to 35, and the shyest dozen never get a word in. Thanks, minister. Glad to have got that straight.

That final fatuity compounds a growing unease I find at reports from this year-group, the same pioneer generation who 10 years ago suffered the initial, lunatically overcomplicated seven-year-old SATs, and who have since hacked their way through the teething troules of the most intensive, fussy system of testing ever invented in any country.

Now, still gasping from GCSE stress and only a year off UCAS hell , they find themselves facing another summer of exams, in the interests of "breadth". I would love some figures on what that actually means in practice. I have been investigating with my usual rigour a spread of 17-year-olds (ie asking everyone I meet what their kid is up to) and a sinister pattern emerges. It does not confirm the Government's starry vision of AS-A2 becoming a UK baccalaureate, guaranteed to produce Renaissance men and women equally at home with physics and philosophy, maths and Moliere.

Rather my research suggests that the artsy lot just bolt on a year of media or theatre studies, and the science lot take an extra science, or a bit of spare maths or geography. Those who were always mixers by nature used to mix it with just three A-levels - chemistry-French-history, or physics-maths-English; or else they were superbright and energetic and took four A-levels anyway. Whereas those whose nature prompts them to cast off a whole field of human endeavour with a sigh of relief at 16 are still doing just that. "Phew! I never need go in a lab again!" - or "Thank God, I can get on with solid proveable subjects and never listen to a load of nonsense about dramatic form". And who is to say that this is not nature's way? Isn't the age of consent old enough to know more or less what kind of mind you have, and what it is fit to dig deeper into?

The guinea pigs will get their grades this summer, and the vast majority of universities, lacking the resources to interview, will use AS to refine their rather random, sporting system of selection by prediction and tea leaves. But, Gordon Brown, please note the trouble is that the worst AS teaching will have been in the worst-off, most understaffed and demoralised schools and colleges. And the very best will, surprise surprise, probably be found in the selectives, the church schools, and the independents, which have the added bonus of being able to pass on the extra exam fees to their paymasters, the parents.

Is this, do you suppose, going to help widen access to top universities? Is it fairycakes.

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