A-level fog obscures everyone

October 29, 1999

The mathematics department at Imperial College recently held a teachers' workshop on the new A levels. The aim was to gain some idea of the effect of the changes on teaching in schools so we could begin to revise our admissions policy.

The first point to emerge was the lack of adequate information about the content and nature of the proposed specifications and examinations. I cannot recommend an admissions policy to the department unless I have such information. So, with regret, I cannot respond to Mr Dunford's plea that admissions tutors should give an early indication of their attitudes to the new A levels.

Teachers had seen some draft specifications. In the sciences, these specifications appeared to have the same content as the existing A-level syllabuses, and so the new A levels will require as many contact hours of teaching as the old. Most teachers at the workshop felt that their schools would be able to teach at most four subjects in the first year of A-level studies, followed by three in the second year.

Further, students will not be put in for AS-level examinations at the end of their first year of study because exam performances will be better after two years of study.

It does not seem likely that there will be a big change in the pattern of A levels that is offered by our applicants, so I would not expect a big change in our entry requirements. Our main criterion for selecting students will be their performance in specified A-level examinations.

We cannot say if we will use the proposed "world-class" papers because we have no information about their content. Such examinations could be useful if they examine the same material as A and AS levels to greater depth.

The introduction of an A* grade at A level and AS level would assist the selection process, particularly for mathematics degrees. The number of students obtaining a grade A in A-level mathematics is now so large that the award of an A is no longer a positive indicator for a student who wishes to enter such a degree.

M. E. Keating

Undergraduate admissions tutor Mathematics department

Imperial College

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