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What keeps me awake at night - A levels can be a rude awakening

"Miss, how did I get just a C? I need an A. I got an A* in my GCSE chemistry. You've got to get that A for me."

This was the reaction of one of my sixth-form students to the result of his mock exam a few weeks ago. He is a reasonably bright student who is hoping to get to university next year to study medicine.

But he is displaying the classic symptoms of someone who has coasted his way through his GCSEs, achieved a string of A* and A grades and is now under the illusion that he can coast his way through four of the hardest A levels and come out with top grades again. How wrong he is.

We hear a lot from politicians about coasting schools. But there is another problem that is growing each year: coasting students who do not want to grapple with a tough subject. It is not entirely their fault that they lack independent study skills and struggle with basic scientific concepts. The need for schools to perform in league tables and the current science curriculum are to blame, too.

The GCSE chemistry course these pupils followed was not particularly challenging and the exam paper even less so. With headteachers under pressure to meet targets, some schools have adopted the "put it on a plate and spoon it into their mouths" policy. Arming students with revision guides, putting on extra classes and devoting entire days to coursework is becoming the norm. It seems like a lot of effort when students only need to answer a third of the questions correctly to gain a grade C, or 75 per cent to gain an A*.

I currently have 30 students in my A-level chemistry class. They have a wide range of abilities, even though the majority gained an A* or an A in their GCSE chemistry. I do not have the time to build the basic knowledge that they are missing, so I have resorted to lunchtimes and after-school sessions.

Several students from the group have already said that they do not want to continue with chemistry next year because it is too hard. They are right - A-level chemistry is hard. If these students had followed a more rigorous and demanding GCSE chemistry course they would have realised that. And they would be relishing the challenge they face now, instead of running away from it.

The writer is a secondary school science teacher from Warwickshire. To tell us what keeps you awake at night, email

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