Talkback

6th April 2001 at 01:00
Stress and anxiety levels are running high in lower sixth forms: AS-level teachers are piling on work to ensure that their students do as well as possible, and the students are reeling from the pressure. Suddenly, Year 12 has more subjects to take, thus more work, and, because private study periods have been cut to provide the extra teaching hours, less time available. The result? Some students are dropping out altogether. Others, and there are a lot of them, are cutting back to four AS-levels (if they began with five), or to the traditional three, possibly with general studies as a fourth.

What will the universities make of this confusion next autumn? Presumably, most will want to make sure they don't miss out on good students, and will base offers on the lowest common denominator - three A-levels. And, if this was not enough, how are the students to decide whether to "cash in" - accept or not - their AS results in the summer?

The issue will be whether they should take the exams again in January with the intention of improving their grades. Until they know the extent of the reliance universities will place on AS results, how are they to make a sound judgment? Worse, they cannot know what offers they will get till the entry date for January exams is long past. Certainly, any retaking will interfere with the preparation for the A2 exams, which is the core of Year 13. And what if key skills are thrown into the equation of what qualifications will be needed for university entrance? The Ucas system may be on the brink of dysfunctioning next year.

A-level is genuinely the gold standard because it is difficult and because students need to transform their approach from GCSE. It gives them the opportunity to experiment with approaches, get things wrong - and try again. A final external Year 12 exam is not consistent with the methodology of A-level.

In trying to have an easier exam accessibleto larger numbers of Year 12 students, while intending to maintain the integrity of A-level,the Government has created two separate entities which are not compatible. What about the two-year cycle to success at A-level which involves a growing maturity over the whole of the course? What about the importance of the summer break between the two A-level years when the student brain has the chance to absorb and bed-in the difficult concepts introduced in Year 12, which form the basis of higher-level study in Year 13?

More damaging still, in the long run, is the impact that this manifestation of the relentless juggernaut of the testing steamroller is having on the all-round development of our students. Realistically they want, and need, to "have a life". The independence of a decent social life and of earning the money to pay for it, are prerequisites for most teenagers in Britain today. All those things which have impressed universities and employers go by the board: taking responsibilities and doing duties in school or college; drama productions; supporting the local community; organising Young Enterprise projects; doing the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme at its higher levels.

What can be rescued from all this chaos? The Government needs to admit there is a problem and to tell Year 12 students: three good A-levels - A2 levels in the new system - are still the priority; when they complete their AS-levels, their objective is to think about A2s; the four weeks in the summer term after AS-level exams is the time to begin serious work on A2s.

This present confusion is a scandal. The new curriculum was imposed without proper consultation or planning and is having a devastating impact on particular students. How often do schools and colleges tell students they have only one chance? It is time some order and common sense was restored.

John Claydon is head of Wyedean school, Chepstow


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