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Wednesday, 6 June, 2001, 18:06 GMT 19:06 UK
Heads call for A-levels inquiry
school library
Sixth formers are under more pressure than ever
Head teachers have written to the education secretary calling for an inquiry into the impact of the A-level changes.

In his letter the leader of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), David Hart, refers to concerns expressed by heads from many secondary schools in both the state and independent sectors about the impact of the Curriculum 2000 changes.

david hart
David Hart: "Problems should have been anticipated"
"The problems set out in this letter should have been anticipated and should have been resolved in a way that does not impose unreasonable demands on students and their schools," he told David Blunkett.

"Accordingly, I urge you to set up an inquiry into the first year of Curriculum 2000 as a matter of urgency."

The changes being faced for the first time by students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland this year involve an effort to broaden the post-16 curriculum.

Workload worries

Instead of studying in most cases three A-levels over two years, students are doing four or five AS-levels ("advanced subsidiary"), typically in the first year, then concentrating on the three A-levels in the second year.

gareth matthewson
Gareth Matthewson: Key Skills "a mess from the word go"
But they are also being encouraged to take a new Key Skills qualification in communication, numeracy and information technology.

There have been concerns about the greatly increased workload on 17 year olds - compounded by a sense that it is all for nothing because universities will not recognise the new qualifications but will continue to focus on the traditional three A-level grades.

Gareth Matthewson, head of Whitchurch High School in Cardiff, who proposed a resolution on the subject at last week's annual conference of the NAHT, said he supported the call for an inquiry.

"Key Skills has been a mess right from the word go," he said.

Standard 'vague'

His perception was that the qualifications authorities had "upped the standard" - but teachers had never really been clear what the required standard was and exam boards had also been vague.

"Pupils have been failing, which has dented the morale of many young people who often have never failed an exam in their lives," he said.

The portfolio work which was a required part of Key Skills was supposed to emerge from students' work in their main subjects, but often did not - which meant their having to do additional work.

He supported the aim of having a broader sixth form curriculum as in most other countries.

"But it's the worst of all possible worlds - a voluntary post-16 system which means schools, colleges and universities can all go their own way."

Schools had been keen to follow the government's wishes - but it was significant that the independent sector had largely ignored Key Skills.

'Enormous pressure'

Mr Matthewson doubted whether there could be any adequate form of compensation for the "guinea pig students" who had done all the extra work, whose core A-level studies might turn out next year to have suffered as a result.

Mr Hart said in his letter that the head teachers' concerns could be summarized under seven headings:

  • the "enormous pressure" on students and their teachers in their first year in the sixth form - including students taking Vocational A-levels "about which there are major concerns".
  • the timetabling of exams - which had led to considerable organisational problems for schools, "much of it caused by the failure of national bodies to co-ordinate planning"
  • the impact on extra-curricula activities, including drama and sport and such things as the Duke of Edinburgh Award and Young Enterprise
  • the many problems associated with Key Skills which "will lead to schools withdrawing their students from Key Skills examinations after this first year"
  • uncertainty over the attitude of universities to both AS-levels and Key Skills
  • excessive bureaucracy, exacerbated by failures on the part of the exam bodies and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to plan properly
  • the considerable impact on the planning process of schools and colleges, having to set their budgets well before their students chose their second year subjects and retakes.
As an example of the "excessive bureaucracy", he said exam boards - the "awarding bodies" - had asked schools for information about their students' intentions in their second years.

"The timing of the request, the sheer bureaucracy involved (with three awarding bodies asking for information in different formats and by different dates) and the failure to understand that predictions cannot be made in many cases until AS results have been received, beggars belief," he wrote.

"It does seem absurd for these requests to be made at this time and for any use to be made of such unreliable data, let alone assisting 'in the determination of the new grade boundaries' as indicated in the letter to schools from the Joint Council."

The Department for Education said Mr Hart's letter would be looked at by ministers after the election.

A spokesman pointed out that the changes had been made after widespread consultation, and that universities had welcomed the breadth of knowledge sixth formers were now getting.

See also:

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