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Tuesday, 17 July, 2001, 07:54 GMT 08:54 UK
Exam cuts: Do the changes go far enough?
Education Secretary Estelle Morris apologised to students in schools and colleges across England, Wales and Northern Ireland for the botched introduction of the exams.
The exams were meant to allow pupils to study a wider range of subjects, but head teachers complained that pupils were expected to do far too much work.
In future, sixth form students will sit single exams of up to three hours rather than large numbers of shorter papers.
Do you think the changes go far enough? What has your experience of these exams been?
This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
Everyone seems to have forgotten about the students who took the exams this year. We may get lower results due to the extra exams, but in 20 years, when applying for jobs, no-one will care that we were guinea pigs.
Giles Falconer, UK
I have just returned from a 2 month exchange trip in the UK and I believe that the AS level exams put too much pressure on sixth form students without giving them a chance to really explore the subjects they have chosen in depth. I think these exams should be abolished altogether, and students should have only two board exams during their schooling - GCSE's and A2's.
I've just finished my A level equivalent - the International Baccalaureate (IB). Six, yes six, subjects are studied - three of them to undergraduate university level. To be honest these AS levels sound easy compared to this. What is all the fuss about? Aren't exams supposed to be hard so they can test you to find out your ability at a subject? Also, everyone is complaining about there being too many subjects. With my six subjects (plus other criteria, but I won't go into that just in case I give an AS level student a heart attack), my opportunities have broadened.
I could do any subject at university if I so wished, whereas my A-level student friend can only go into two closely associated subject areas. And remember, many people at our age (17-18) do not know what they want to do as a career yet. With the IB I can virtually choose one because of the range of subjects that I have studied.
Becky Voller, UK
I am starting my AS Levels next year, and I was so relieved to hear that the modules were being replaced with 3-hour papers. If you take long exams, it is easier to revise for them because there's fewer of them. I think the new system has been introduced without being thought through properly. Also, why is there a need to "broaden" the curriculum? Shouldn't students be specialising by this stage? 4 subjects is too many, bring back the old A-Level. If something ain't broke, don't fix it!
We are two sixth form students who have taken the new AS levels this year and believe that the main problem with this system is the amount of work we have to do within a very short space of time. This is completely unlike the GCSE workload, there is FAR more pressure attached. We worked 8 1/2 months cramming in information that we can barely remember now and this is surely not the point.
Instead of making exams and the educational system more complicated, there should be a drive to make it more simple and efficient. This would not only ensure that students are getting the proper education which they deserve, but make their hard work worthwhile.
I have just completed my A1 exams this year and found that in most of my subjects teachers were hard pushed to complete the syllabus. I am therefore shocked to hear that there are plans to bring the exams further forward. They must be moved back to give next year's candidates a fighting chance of achieving their potential.
Simon Harris (student), UK
I really laughed when I read Dave, UK's plea that "surely we deserve a bit of a rest". You've got a six week summer holiday to "rest" in, unlike people who do proper jobs. Still, it's comforting to see that the new generation of students are just as whiny as ever.
The main problem with the British exam system is simply that it offers too many different qualifications - A-Levels, AS-levels, GNVQs, AGNVQs, B-Tecs, NDs and so on. It's high time we scrapped the lot and adopted the International Baccalaureate for ALL sixth-formers. The current system desperately needs rationalisation across the board.
Dave Tankard, UK
As a Scot who sat five Highers over 20 years ago, I can see nothing wrong with sitting a wider range of subjects. As a college lecturer who teaches at A level, I am enthusiastic about AS. Those college students who decide to give up A levels after one year will have something to take with them (a clutch of AS certificates we hope). One problem is that teachers have tried to teach the content of AS to the same depth as before, using old texts and notes. This is the result of being forced to operate blindfold by the powers that be (ie without sufficient training and guidance).
I must disagree with the ridiculous point made by the pupils of Kesteven and Grantham Girl's School. Three-hour exams are challenging and require far more effort, concentration and sustained thought than modules. This allows knowledge to be tested to a greater depth. It is a challenge for all students, regardless of gender. How absurd to suggest that girls cannot cope with this challenge. I speak as someone who has recently sat (and passed!) a set of 3 hour papers - in chemistry - at university.
Chris Curtis, UK
I can't believe the amount of fuss being made in the English and Welsh education system about this. Scottish students have been taking 4,5 or even 6 Highers straight after their GCSEs for the last 20+ years. The result is that Scottish students have a much broader education, and avoids the plight of so many of my friends at university who ended up doing degree courses in subjects they hated because their A-Levels qualified them for nothing else. If people stick with AS Levels, it will get easier, and if they go to university, they'll find exams at the end of every module, just like AS Levels
What a panic! All the pluses and minuses were clearly foreseen by teachers and expressed in advance. But the Government persisted in piling on changes to the post-16 curriculum without providing the time or money to implement them properly. Modular exams are not new and they are not so difficult to manage - but the problem now is that too many students have had to take four subjects and do all the AS exams in one year. This is what leads to overload.
In addition Key Skills were far too complicated and were best avoided. The universities have taken very little notice of the reforms, which makes it not worth while for schools to push students towards a qualification which will gain them nothing; some may even under-perform through attempting too many subjects. This was a poorly thought out reform which the proposed changes will do nothing to improve. Allowing the efficient schools time to bed the changes at a sensible level would have been the right policy. As it is we have yet more change. And has anyone told Estelle Morris that exam papers are prepared twenty months before they are taken? I write as a Head of Sixth Form and a parent of a Year 12 student.
I don't know about the new system but I took my A Levels 4 years ago, and all I know is it wasn't the number of exams that I found pressurising, it was the fact that I realised I hadn't worked hard enough during the rest of the year and the year before. I don't think going to the pub during school lunchtime was a good idea either - if only I'd known.
I'm 17 and have taken ten AS exams in a period of two weeks. Yes, I agree the workload over the past year has been unbelievably heavy and stressful but in hindsight I would prefer to take modular exams as I progress in a subject rather than fewer longer ones! However the timetable and organisation of the AS exams has been shambolic. There has been too much to learn in too short a time. I feel I have had to rush through most subjects which is not desirable. Now I feel my efforts are being undermined by what is being said by Government and universities who do not appear to recognise the new format which we have had no choice but to accept. My confidence is really low at the moment and I am left wondering whether all the hard work I have put in will get me to university now.
I think people are
missing the point.
Back in the days
when only a small
elite of students
sat A-levels, we
didn't have any
trouble taking six
or eight papers in
three or four days.
But now exams have
been devalued so
much that A-levels
contain questions from
old O-level papers,
and far more students
take the exams, so
you can't really
That's what devaluing
an exam means, after
all. Didn't anyone
What I don't think the Government understands is that it isn't just the exams that have gone wrong. The main problem is the amount of work that has to be covered. Basically, it is 1.5 years of the old A-level system, crammed into 9 months, with less lessons (as one has to study more subjects to "broaden one's curriculum"). I think that it is a shambles. The Government has once again not fully thought out the options. What need was there to change the old system? These exams were thoroughly disorganised, as the exam boards did not know what topics were going to be covered on the 2000-2001 syllabus in June 2000.
Even though I did not have too many exams on one day (the most being three for me), my friends had up to 8, due to clashes with other exam boards!
If English school kids (not "students") think they work hard, let them try the Continent. There they do in a month or two what English kids manage (badly) in as many years. Why aren't the school kids honest enough to admit the real reason for their "stress": trying to cram a bit of school-work in between lengthy stints at the local supermarket.
These AS levels were a bad idea from the start. The Government failed to think about the impact these new exams would have on everyone. It's more pressure for students who have to take 5 AS levels in the first year of the 6th form and not only that but there is yet another year where students have to sit external exams. External exams three years in a row is too much for students to take. Teachers have had to cram to teach the new syllabus for each subject and the exams students have worked for might not even be marked on time. As a student I work hard and try my best in school but these exams have been too much and not only do we have to sit the exams but start the A2 courses before we break up for the summer.
After a year of extremely hard work on the part of staff and students I am dismayed to hear the critics of the new AS levels arguing that the whole thing as been a 'shambles' before even the results are published! This must be so disheartening for the 50 or 60 thousand students who have just completed their exams and may now be feeling extremely anxious about the results. As a teacher in FE, feeling pretty exhausted at the end of this academic year, I personally feel insulted after the hard work I know myself, colleagues and students have put in to make the year a success. I also feel very much for the students who must now be wondering what on earth it was all for.
I am confident my own students will have done extremely well in their exams as they have been very well prepared, however since college has now finished these young people are unable to hear the reassurance of their tutors and will probably have to endure a miserable summer reading press reports of a system that has once again apparently failed them.
One point has been missed amid all this (justified)furore about the AS-levels. People who have taken final exams for the old A-levels this summer (like me) who may have flunked them have no way of re-sitting these exams because the syllabus is not being tested any more. So added pressure has been put on all sixth-form students, not just the lower sixth.
Personally, I am very glad not to have been a part of these changes, and am very proud to have taken the old A-level rather than these new, watered-down exams which were clearly change for the sake of change. Whatever was wrong with the old A-level system?
Ian Ratcliffe, UK
My daughter worked herself into a state of near nervous exhaustion studying for her GCSEs with homework, course work and revision taking up an average of about 20/25 hours per week in addition to normal school time during the 9 month run up to the exams. The thought of the 6th form workload with 5 AS levels to be taken, plus the key skills exam in subjects where she is scored A grades in her GCSE mock exams, plus the question of whether she (or us) can afford for her to go on to university, is making her think seriously whether or not it is worth her while putting herself through the stress.
Last year's debacle over the new Scottish Higher-Stills and Advanced Highers seems to have spread south of the border! For once I will cross Hadrian's Wall with some sympathy for our southern neighbours! No in all seriousness, the education of our young people is the corner stone of our society. The UK was once respected for our education system and now it lies in under-funded, over-worked ruin!
One major impact of the new AS levels was to make it virtually impossible for adult education establishments to offer 12 month A level courses. These courses play a major part in improving the skill sets and employability of the workforce in these uncertain times. The courses were also typically taught by dedicated teaching professionals whose views were not taken into account. Teachers are the obvious education experts and governments of whatever persuasion must learn to work with them!
The point of consultation needs to be enforced. Not only are we seeming to be working harder and under more stress, but at the same time being encouraged to take on extracurricular activities as well. The Government recently talked about sporting excellence being at an all time low. How can participation in sport be possible when so much work is to be done?
It's all very well introducing a system and then saying it doesn't work, but what are they going to do for the pupils who have already suffered because of it?
My daughter and son (twins) will probably both achieve lower results than under the previous regime. This is mainly due to the huge workload that has been put upon them and the pressure of having to sit the first module exams as early as January in the academic year.
If these students think there are too many exams at AS level, just wait until they start university!!!
The whole idea of learning a subject is that you learn it as you go along, and that revision should merely be reinforcement and reminders of what you already know. Any teenager intent on going on to further/ higher education will find life a damn sight easier if they learn as they go, rather than cramming just before the exam. The AS level will help to achieve this, by testing the students periodically rather than reinforcing the 'cram and exam' cycle. I say keep them going, but find some way to ease the burden on the teachers.
I am concerned that the report may miss the point about the length of time available to students for study in both the first and second year of the new A level structure. The time to cover the subjects in detail seems much reduced and surely this then misses the point about broadening the students' overall knowledge base.
The Government continues to try to fill a 1 pint pot with 2 pints worth of work for students and teachers. When will politicians realise that there is a limited amount of capacity for teachers to teach and for students to learn? Filling that capacity with too many inspections and too many exams helps neither teaching nor learning. Estelle Morris's appointment was welcomed as a breath of fresh air but she seems to have failed her first test! I'd encourage her to re-sit the test in the hope of passing at some future point!
G. Simpson, UK
The one thing the teaching profession does not need is yet more change. Teachers take time to prepare materials and schemes of work for courses which in a relatively short space of time are defunct rather than honed and improved to encourage best practice. The AS specifications are not as onerous as the student vox pops seem to suggest - students are never going to seek out extra work. The AS is in many subjects not much of a step up from GCSE. If change must occur I would advocate a return to the old A Level which provided greater progression and a fair test. The curriculum has not been broadened to any great degree by the AS qualification.
Lazy students - give them more exams!!!!
What a shambles - never mind the work and exams. Even now we have finished them we have had to go back for four weeks. After a year of work and tests surely we deserve a bit of a rest.
Science Students, from Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School, England
'A' levels, in my case, led to 4 exams in two days, that's 14hrs exams in 32 hrs and that was not uncommon. Finals in my case were all in one week - 9 papers.
What is all this fuss about? If pupils are incapable of doing the work then just don't let them.
The AS-Level exams were made compulsory because not enough students were taking them previously, so this was just a way of justifying their existence. What a farce!
Elaine Meller, England
Although the AS levels have been hard, they work better for students than any other system that has been tried including the one that may be reimplemented. This is because students take the exam straight after doing the work and not up to a year and a half later which decreases revision. It also decreases the risk of blowing your final exam and ruining your entire A level. I think they should leave the AS levels alone to settle down. The mistake they made was trying to broaden the curriculum without cutting out any content which didn't work. Overall I think students are grateful to them because overall they reduce pressure.
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