Traditional courses on the way out

The "modular" course is the new target for the standards sceptics. The division of two years' study into four, five or six manageable and separately examined chunks, it is claimed, inevitably makes things easier.

Modular A-levels certainly made the last government nervous, and stringent new rules were introduced: the number of retakes has been limited and at least one third of the course must be taken as a terminal exam.

But what few in authority have been willing to acknowledge is that almost all A-level exams will end up as modular, whether the traditionalists like it or not.

The recent growth has been exponential. Until 1996 modular courses made up just 2 per cent of the examination entries. Last year the numbers exploded. Modular courses accounted for one-fifth of the 750,000 entries, including half those in some science subjects. This year the proportion has risen again to 30 per cent.

In some subjects, maths for example, there will be no traditional "linear" courses on offer after 2000, although candidates can take all their modules at once if they choose. This is the rather thin basis on which Conservative ministers promised that traditional courses would stay.

Not all A-levels will come as six equally weighted modules. But, as the Government's curriculum advisers point out, thanks to Sir Ron Dearing even the most old-fashioned A-level programmes will be divided into two self-standing modules: an AS, followed by a second year of study for the full qualification.

The benefits of the modular route are not straightforward: last year's slight improvement in the pass rate was matched by a reduction in the proportion gaining the top A grade. It could be that the effort of sustaining A-grade work over two years of assessment is too much for some. An alternative explanation is that the candidates selected for the modular route are less able.

The gender divide is a second point of recurring concern at this time of year. Girls have made immense strides at GCSE, matching or outstripping boys in every subject bar physics. However, the dramatic improvements of girls over the past decade have not yet been matched at A-level (or in degree finals), where boys continue to do better overall and where the male domination of mathematical and scientific subjects persists.

A statistical quirk illustrates this. Although in a minority, male candidates for A-level English do better on average than girls. This is because the boys are self-selected and highly motivated.

The same should, therefore, hold true of physics, where girls are in the minority and so should score better. But they don't. It remains to be seen whether modular courses and less emphasis on terminal exams can change that.

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