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EDITIONS
Monday, 21 May, 2001, 00:22 GMT 01:22 UK
Students' worries over new exams
students in exam room
Candidates are guinea pigs in reformed system
Some sixth formers are wondering whether it is worth the extra effort of studying for the new AS-level exams - because the universities they want to go to might not recognise the qualifications.


The extra burden of doing an extra subject in the first year sixth is going to be irrelevant

Worried parent
Revamped AS-levels are being taken for the first time this year as part of the government's plan to broaden the post-16 curriculum, with most students doing four AS-levels in their first year then focusing on three A-levels in their second.

Some have been finding the extra workload such a slog that they have been dropping the fourth subject during the first year.

But another concern is that they might be wasting their time doing it because it will count for nothing on their university applications. Students and universities alike are confused.

'Depth matters'

Durham, for example, says: "We are not sure how many Year 12 AS-levels all schools and colleges will be able to provide to their students; we do not know when AS-level qualifications will be obtained (Year 12 or Year 13); it is not clear how many schools and colleges will offer the key skills qualifications, advanced extension tests or GNVQs. There is still a great deal of uncertainty."


We do not want students to sacrifice depth for greater breadth

Durham University
And it says: "Applicants for all subjects will be disadvantaged if they are not able to demonstrate concentrated study at an advanced level. We do not want students to sacrifice depth for greater breadth."

A new "tariff" published by the admissions service, Ucas, gives numerical values to qualifications in an attempt to compare applicants with a variety of qualifications from England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and Scotland.

So a grade A in an AS-level and a grade D at A-level both attract 60 points - twice as much as a key skills unit level 4 and half as much as an Advanced Higher grade A.

But it is only a recommendation and universities do not have to follow it.

The London School of Economics (LSE), for instance, makes clear that it will not be.

Demoralising

"Whilst LSE can appreciate the general usefulness of the Ucas tariff, we will not be implementing it in terms of our own admissions criteria and procedures. We will continue to require specific grades in particular subjects in acceptable academic qualifications."


We will continue to require specific grades in particular subjects

LSE
One parent who accompanied her son to an LSE open day for prospective students was demoralised when they were told the university would be accepting people only on the basis of their final A-level grades.

The LSE's admissions officer, Louise Burton, said it would continue making offers on the basis of students' A-levels, but previous AS grades would be taken into account when considering who should get offers - along with anything else about a student's background.

"We want as much information as possible so we can assess candidates in the light of what's happened to them," she said.

The problem for students is the worry that the workload involved in doing four or in some cases five AS-levels will have an adverse effect on their final A-level grades - which are what will ultimately determine whether they get a place or not.

Potential damage

"If my son, who did outstandingly well at GCSE, is struggling with the extra work involved in doing four AS-levels, goodness knows how other youngsters are coping," said parent Caroline Needham.


Until universities know what the results are like they are being cautious

Researcher Ann Hodgson
"The extra burden of doing an extra subject in the first year sixth is going to be irrelevant.

"As someone working in adult education I'm very aware of the effect on someone who can't manage an A-level, for instance, and drops out - the effect goes on for years and years and they feel a big sense of failure.

"The system should be enabling the maximum number of people to succeed and not trying to create an elite who can cope with the extra work."

The head of the universities' admissions service, Tony Higgins, has said: "The days of the traditional higher education applicant with three A-levels are gone".

He said admissions officers would need to consider actual AS results as well as predicted A-level grades.

A survey by his organisation showed that 70% of schools and colleges were doing the new AS exams in the first year, the others - especially independent schools - taking the alternative route of doing them over two years, to be sat with the A-levels.

Sympathy

London University's Institute of Education is evaluating the changes as part of some independent research funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

ann hodgson
Ann Hodgson: "Universities are being cautious"
"I have every sympathy - it's very difficult for the students and teachers who are caught up in it, but until universities know what the results are like they are being cautious," said one of the project leaders, Dr Ann Hodgson.

A problem is that schools, who have had to introduce the changes quickly, are tending to teach the AS-levels to A-level standard in the first year.

"I think that's going to get better as the reforms bed in."

Extra first year work will not necessarily damage students' eventual A-level grades, she argues - on the basis that under the old system, those who had dropped from studying three subjects to two had not necessarily got better results.

"They do have more choice now. If they find that one of their subjects is not what they would have wanted they can drop it and still have three A-levels, which wouldn't have been the case in the past," she said.

"I don't think the system is perfect by any means, but we should pursue the broader curriculum and universities will eventually latch on to that."

See also:

06 May 01 | UK Education
11 Apr 01 | UK Education
25 Jun 00 | UK Education
30 Mar 01 | UK Education
12 Feb 01 | UK Education
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