Page last updated at 01:14 GMT, Friday, 15 January 2010

Independent schools 'abandoning modular A-levels'

By Angela Harrison
Education and family reporter, BBC News

Exam room
Independent schools can choose which exams pupils sit

Independent schools are turning from modular A-levels towards traditional ones where all papers are taken after two years, a survey suggests.

The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference says that at one in six of the schools it represents, pupils will only sit the exams after two years.

Independent schools are also calling on the government to recognise iGCSEs.

Ministers say modular A-levels are fair and the iGCSE (an alternative GCSE) does not match the national curriculum.

The survey for the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), which represents 250 fee-paying schools in the UK and the Irish Republic, involved about half of its members.

In total, 15 out of 109 schools that responded to the question said they already do not, or will not, offer AS-levels, while 21 of 103 schools said they are, or are planning to allow, students to only take A-level exams in June of their final year.

Until about 10 years ago, students typically took their A-level exams at the end of their two-year courses.

Today, A-levels are commonly taken in stages, with opportunities for re-takes of individual modules to boost overall grades .

The failure to recognise the iGCSE means that the league tables may be confusing for parents
Gillian Low, President of the Girls' Schools Association

HMC Chairman Andrew Grant, headmaster of St Albans School, Hertfordshire, said: "This [survey] shows how HMC schools are able to use their independence to customise their curriculum and the qualifications they offer to meet the best interests of their students, rather than having to swallow the artificially restricted diet imposed by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF).

"The freedom enjoyed by independent schools from the constraints imposed by government diktat is leading to a divergence of educational experience for pupils in the two sectors that shows no sign of diminishing."

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: "The modular exams are fairer because they better reward the hard work of young people over the two-year course - instead of having an all-or-nothing exam at the end.

"A-levels are rigorously scrutinised by the independent watchdog Ofqual to make sure that standards remain high.

"Students have always been able to re-sit A-levels. There are very low levels of re-sits in the new AS-levels and it is bizarre for heads to argue that there is something wrong with having a second chance to do an exam of exactly the same standard - students' achievement is no less valid."

'Flawed league tables'

As league tables were published this week, independent schools renewed their call for the government to recognise the iGCSE qualification, which some fee-paying schools opt for, particularly in maths and English.

Many leading independent schools appear at the bottom of the league tables, because they are based on GCSEs and other accredited qualifications - but do not include the iGCSE.

David Lyscom, chief executive of the Independent Schools Council (ISC) said: "The comparison of school performance via league tables is deeply flawed, in particular given the wide variety of valid qualifications currently on offer, and the differing views of their worth.

"Indeed, some qualifications - notably the demanding iGCSE - are not considered at all in the tables. ISC therefore calls on the government to ensure that the worth of all relevant qualifications is fully recognised, and on the media to take these important qualifications into account.

"Otherwise they simply serve to misinform and mislead parents."


Schools which opt for the iGCSE often say they are more rigorous than GCSEs.

This is disputed by the government and some head teachers.

Dr John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has said they risk causing an "unfortunate split" between the independent sector.

He has also said they have an "old-fashioned approach", arguing that some modern language courses do not have an oral exam.

State schools are not allowed to enter students for the iGCSE, because the government says they do not meet the requirements of the national curriculum set down for secondary school pupils.

Some 145 fee-paying schools came bottom of this year's school league tables because their pupils sat at least one of the iGCSE courses.

The president of the Girls' Schools Association, Gillian Low, said the government did not recognise iGCSEs because they "did not tick all the boxes on the national curriculum".

"The failure to recognise the iGCSE means that the league tables may be confusing for parents and undermines the government's wish for accountability and transparency," she said.

"You cannot judge a school's examination performance fairly if a highly-regarded qualification is excluded."

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