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Wednesday, 30 May, 2001, 13:52 GMT 14:52 UK
Sixth form overload 'shambles'
exam candidate
Students are struggling under the weight of new exams
By BBC News Online's Katherine Sellgren at the NAHT conference in Harrogate

Head teachers say that the revised exam system for sixth formers is a "shambles" - with too many exams and no time for sport and drama.

Heads painted a bleak picture of overworked, stressed pupils, unable to participate in extra-curricular activities because of the pressure of AS-levels, A-levels and Key Skills examinations.

Amanda Martin-Walker
Amanda Martin-Walker says pupils are losing out on sport and drama

Delegates at the National Association of Head Teachers' conference in Harrogate were especially critical of the Key Skills exams, saying they were poorly implemented, pitched too high and were not sufficiently valued to warrant the extra volume of work.

The Key Skills programme, devised to abate employers' and universities' concerns that teenagers could not read and write properly or do basic arithmetic, is voluntary.

But the NAHT argues this has led to a situation where universities do not feel obliged to recognise them and students who take them are disadvantaged because of the added workload.

School's U-turn

Amanda Martin-Walker, deputy head of Beverley School in East Yorkshire, said her school had adopted the "full monty" approach to the curriculum this year, with students taking 4 AS-levels, general studies AS-level and level three in three Key Skills exams.

"But we have now made the decision that this was not in the best interest of our students and we are very worried about the impact it's had on our students," she said.

Sixth formers were no longer able to take part in activities such as sport and drama, Ms Martin-Walker lamented.

Key Skills exams - which can be sat at various points of the year - impacted greatly on other areas of the school, disrupting even those who were not taking them, Ms Martin-Walker said.

"For example, we're having to use the sports hall to house these exams and that impacts greatly on the PE department, particularly in winter," she said.


From next year, she said, the school would not be taking the Key Skills exams and expected others to do the same.

Head teacher of Whitchurch High School, in Cardiff, Gareth Matthewson, described Key Skills as the straw which broke the camel's back, as students and teachers struggled to get to grips with the new AS-levels.

The standard of the tests was a lot higher than anyone had envisaged, with only about 17% passing, he said.

"Large numbers of bright children, who've never failed an exam in their lives, have had a huge knock to their confidence.

"The universities clearly don't think they're important, so students are saying 'why should we do them?'

"The government has introduced a mess and should withdraw Key Skills," Mr Matthewson said.

But heads stressed that, in principle, they agreed with the notion of key skills testing, but want it to be incorporated within the courses sixth formers are sitting, rather than as a separate "bolt-on" exercise.

Exam chaos

Heads said they were often dealing with scenes of chaos, as they tried to find space to accommodate the extra exam sittings.

And the fact that many students were sitting exams with many different boards had led to chaos, senior vice principal of The John Kitto Community College in Plymouth, Vince Burke, said.

A lack of communication between the exam boards meant heads were having to supervise dozens of pupils who had exam clashes.

"We're paying more on exam fees now - my bill has gone up from 50,000 last year to nearly 60,000 - but the exam boards are walking away from the responsibility," Mr Burke said.

Mr Matthewson, who employs a full-time examination officer, said he had 60 exam clashes to deal with this year.

Enquiry needed

NAHT general secretary, David Hart, called on the incoming government to hold an enquiry into the new post-16 education.

"Curriculum 2000 is a fudge - it was an attempt to broaden, but it's not working.

"We want this system to work, but the new government should look at whether it's time to move onto the next phase," Mr Hart said.

The NAHT wants to see the introduction of a post-14 curriculum, where pupils can develop academic or vocational skills and sit exams in their own time.

'Working well'

But a senior government spokesman said the new post-16 curriculum was working well.

In France and Germany pupils had 30 hours a week contact time and, before the introduction of the AS-level, pupils here only got 18 hours, he said.

Parents would be astonished that head teachers were suggesting the lower sixth should be turned into a gap year, he said.

"Most students are doing AS-levels, the only complication seems to be that it's taking a lot of hard work," the spokesman said.

Key Skills had been introduced because universities and employers were concerned about the ability of young people to communicate properly, he added.

The BBC's Mike Baker
"This summer sees a huge national experiment"
See also:

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25 May 01 | Education
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