Stop doing down my generation

23rd August 1996 at 01:00
Why is it that people of my generation are never allowed to be good at anything? Since graduating from university this year, I have wondered about this every day, mainly because of the media coverage our critics get.

First, I read about the concerns of company bosses, who say that graduate employees have been made lazy and irresponsible by their university years. And now that young people up and down the country have achieved excellent A-level results, we hear of government ministers - and those company bosses again - telling the media that all this exam success is down to the fact that A-levels have become amazingly easy.

The under-25s obviously have neither power nor influence as far as the media are concerned. Otherwise, we might hear them asking the Institute of Directors or government ministers why, if they are so intelligent, hard-working and responsible, young people's job prospects are so undeniably poor.

Modular A-levels are a particular target for attack, with Sir Rhodes Boyson in the vanguard. He has ranted on about modular A-levels being "not worth the paper they are written on". Yet he has neither taken nor taught a modular A-level course - so he is hardly an authority on the matter, unlike the teachers, students and exam chiefs who defend them.

I took modular A-levels, as did my brother, and they proved not an impediment to but a help in my obtaining a good honours degree in biochemistry and his successfully completing the first year of a biomedical sciences degree. The modular structure of our A-level courses prepared us better for our university experience than traditional courses would have done.

Students taking modular examinations must work consistently over both their A- level years if they are to pass. With traditional A-levels, the first year is treated by too many as a gentle induction course. Those taking modular A-levels must be focused for a system of continuous assessment as soon as they begin their course - a scenario that, I believe, has more relevance to the world of work, which is what ultimately we should be preparing students for.

Perhaps this will enlighten Ruth Lea, policy director of the Institute of Directors, who emphasised her concern about the "lack of rigour" in modular exams.

Rhodes Boyson dropped another clanger when he dismissed modular retakes, saying that they can be done over and over again until the student eventually passes.

He fails to grasp that, in practice, the number of re-sit opportunities via a modular course are very limited. For those facing re-sits there is little teacher time available for help with topics previously covered, since the rest of the class has moved on to a new module. Re-taking requires a disciplined independent learning approach at a time when a student is taking on new modules. The majority of students can feasibly re-sit only one or two modules.

But at least it is possible to re-sit without the waste of a year. I suffered an epileptic fit the morning before one of my modular biology papers. Such is the nature of epilepsy, I came out of the subsequent exam having written a pile of illegible rubbish. The point is that I got the chance to retake it, and got what I deserved in the first place - an A grade - and as a result began my university course on schedule.

Modular courses cut out the chance element that exists in traditional ones. They assess how much a student has understood the course content, not just what she or he has remembered. Modular A-levels offer students who are prepared to make the effort a second chance and do not discriminate against those whose performance in an exam does not reflect their true abilities.

I hope the sourness of the critics has not deterred young people from embarking on a career or university course. For two years, they have proved what an asset they are to society. The Rhodes Boysons and Ruth Leas of this world have only proved again what a hindrance they are to it.

Sarah Willson has just graduated in biochemistry at Southampton University

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