How linearity is changing the modular world
For parents and teachers of a certain age the (re-) introduction of linear sixth form courses with ‘all or nothing’ exams at the end of the Upper Sixth is a reassuringly familiar return to an assessment world they experienced. But to younger teachers and all students this ‘blast from the past’ represents a new way of learning and examination. No longer are subjects divided up into ‘bite sized’ chunks for assessments that can be resat during the course, instead everything now hangs on the terminal exams which assess the whole course. If those exams go badly they have to be resat in full and this will require a third sixth form year. From a student’s perspective we have moved from a gentle examination model of little and often assessments with regular resit opportunities, to a more high stakes game where grade and university outcomes rest on big final exams. For many students this is a worrying proposition, made worse by university grade offer inflation.
When linear A levels were last routinely sat a mix of B and C grades would get students into a good university. Today students are more likely to require A and A*s. A combination of terminal exams and higher grade offers is an understandable source of sixth form anxiety. All of this is made worse by the fact the new linear A levels are new, and therefore details about exam papers, assessment criteria and grade boundaries are sketchy. The high stakes game is being played partly in the dark.
It is not just in linearity that there is a return to the past. Without AS module results on which to assess applicants, universities are having to change their admissions processes. The fourth term entry test is back with a vengeance. Early November of the upper sixth is now very much the university admissions test season.
So what does all of this mean for sixth forms?
In the state sector budget cuts have narrowed the sixth form curriculum such that the old 4 AS level programme in the lower sixth leading to 3 or 4 A levels in the upper sixth has become 3 linear qualifications from day one. The Perse has resisted this move. We do not want to narrow the lower sixth form curriculum prematurely and deny pupils the opportunity to study a fourth complementary subject (for example maths reinforcing physics, chemistry and biology) or a fourth contrasting subject that gives students additional skills (for example a foreign language). We also know from experience that making the right subject choices is a key determinant of examination success. There is a significant leap up from I/GCSE to A level and success in a subject at GCSE does not necessarily equate with success at A level; this is particularly so for maths and the sciences. The advantage of The Perse’s 4 subject lower sixth programme of study is that students can decide which subject to drop on the basis of actual A level experience, and we know this leads to more informed decisions and subsequently better exam results.
The Perse has a specialist Higher Education Team of 10, together with subject advisers in 19 subject areas. With such specialist staffing we run bespoke preparation classes for different university admissions tests (including overseas universities) and advise students on the composition of their personal statements to maximise the chances of receiving an offer. Where students will be interviewed as part of the selection process subject advisers are assisted by other Perse staff in providing challenging practice interviews. We also have an interview exchange arrangement with Magdalen College School Oxford to perfect interview technique. The cumulative effect of this extra help can be the difference between offers and rejections at top universities where competition for places is stiff and marginal gains shape outcomes.
With everything riding on terminal exams, the quality of sixth form teaching is paramount. With an average sixth form class size of less than 10, Perse teachers have the time to closely supervise and support individual students to make sure they are on track for success in the final exams. Detailed, regular, marking feedback is crucial so that students can perfect their examination technique. The latter is helped by many of our staff who as experienced public examiners know what markers are looking for.
The combination of linear exams and higher grade offers can be stressful. Students require pastoral support from their tutors and general wellbeing guidance. They also need balance in their lives and the opportunity for enjoyment, stress relief, skills acquisition and character development through sport, music, drama, outdoor pursuits, and other clubs and societies. We know from experience that students who have lots of other interests develop a better sense of perspective, are more resilient, and score highly in exams. More interests make for a more interesting, well rounded person, which in turn aids university and job applications. Most importantly of all it sets sixth formers up for a more enriching adult life.
Linearity is changing the sixth form, and good schools like The Perse are evolving to keep ahead of new academic and pastoral challenges. Whilst terminal exams may be a nostalgic ‘blast from the past’ for parents, when coupled with higher university offers they are a concern for students. We will work with our pupils to manage any worries and ensure students achieve their academic and extra curricular goals in a happy and purposeful environment.