Why did we have to suffer AS-levels?

6th July 2001 at 01:00
Sixth-former Eleanor Maclure writes an open letter to the Education secretary in protest at the new AS-levels Dear Estelle Morris, am writing to you about my concern over the new AS-level examination system. I have just spent over 14 hours under exam conditions, taking AS-levels in psychology, design and technology, geography and art.

I am very proud of my nine GCSEs and was looking forward to starting my new AS-level courses last September. However, as the year progressed, my concerns grew. One of the biggest problems with the new system has been its implementation. There are not enough resources for students. There were no textbooks available to over 60 students in my year who were taking psychology. My teacher had one copy - her own - from which she had to photocopy almost 200 pages for each student. And the geography department was left without textbooks for half of the course. We were forced to share books and use out-of-date ones.

What has made it even more difficult is that there has been comparatively little material released from the exam boards in preparation for the exams. For GCSE and A-level candidates, there are lots of past papers available to practise with. AS-level students have been denied this simple right, leaving them with little knowledge of what to expect, where the grade boundaries lie and how strictly the papers will be marked. Few revision guides have been published, despite being in high demand.

One of the supposed benefits of the new system was that students could take more subjects. At my school, however, there has been little difference because it does not have the space, teachers, or money to offer more courses. In any case, for some people, a broad range of subjects is not what they want or need. Many are obliged to specialise, after GCSE, to meet entry requirements for university.

I have felt so pressured this year that I don't think I can cope with all four A-levels next year. Unfortunately, I have had to drop geography, which I achieved an A* in at GCSE, because it offers least for my higher education prospects. I also believe that, at my school, fewer people will continue with all four A-levels than in previous years. Much of this pressure has come from more external, end-of-year exams. From the age of 14, there are exams every year: national tests for 14-year-olds, internally-set Year 10 exams, GCSEs, AS-levels, A-levels and then university exams, if you go into higher education.

Constant examinations crush personal development at a time which some teenagers find difficult, personally and emotionally anyway. The introduction of more exams is especially unfair on those who find sitting them difficult, even though they may be capable and have revised well. Getting grades is becoming more about exam technique, jumping through hoops and playing the system.

The volume of work demanded by AS-level courses has meant that other areas are neglected. In previous years, the lower-sixth was about adjusting to sixth-form life, adapting to new courses and taking advantage of the opportunities on offer to students. I have not been able to do this because so much of my time and effort has been geared towards schoolwork and revision. A prime example was the Young Enterprise Scheme, which I was involved in. I, and the company as a whole, could have achieved far more had we been given the time. I was also unable to take part in athletics this year as I did not have the time to train or attend practice.

Had I been part of the old A-level system, I feel that I would have coped with the workload and the examinations far better. If I only had exams at the age of 18, I would not have to juggle driving lessons and a part-time job with my revision and studies. I have never felt so under-prepared and oblivious as to what to expect for a set of exams - and I don't think I am alone in this view.

To me, this year has been a blur, a year I should have spent enjoying my new-found responsibilities and independence as a sixth-former, developing as a young adult and becoming familiar with my new courses. I resent the fact that I, and all lower-sixth students, have been guinea-pigs for a new system.

It is totally unfair that we have suffered at the hands of poor organisation, planning and implementation - I feel my education and that of many others has suffered as a result.

Eleanor Maclure, 17, is a student at the North Halifax Grammar School, West Yorkshire.

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