The Next Level | Living North

The Next Level

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Is the jump between GCSE and A-levels harder than the jump from A-levels to degree level? Three heads share their thoughts
'The best A-level practice is more likely to be closer to first year undergraduate work than it is to GCSE work'
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'I agree that both ‘jumps’ are major transitions which can be daunting, particularly for the first few weeks, until the students grow into what is expected of them. However, I don’t believe that the jump between GCSE and A-levels is intrinsically harder than from A-levels to degree level. GCSEs are typically highly structured with specific requirements for homework. The brain is not fully formed and levels of maturity to engage in higher level thinking vary. While not desirable, it is possible to learn much of the content rather than understanding it. At A-level the learning experience changes with free periods and an expectation that students will organise their own learning programme. The challenges of the jump from A-levels to university are different again. Students are also learning to juggle academic studies with other activities. The difficulties that some students encounter can be minimised by teaching which promotes independent learning and enquiry, and good learning habits, from an early age.'
Hilary French, headmistress, Central Newcastle High School GDST

'The step up from GCSE to A-level is certainly a big one. That’s how it should be. After all, at GCSE boys and girls are studying 10 or more subjects. It’s a generalist, broad qualification: the fact that the government has recently conceived the idea of an English Baccalaureate underlines that commitment to breadth. Traditionally though, post-16 students have specialised in the UK, and attempts over the years to broaden post-16 study have generally been thwarted. When I’m advising 16-year-olds about choosing A-levels, I tell them they must have a passion for the subjects they choose. They’ve got to love it, to want to go further, to dig deeper, to tackle all the intellectual challenges it throws at them. Young people with sharp young minds thrive on challenges, and that’s precisely what A-level study throws at them. After the initial shock, they get on with it, such is the resilience of the young, and the thing that more than anything excites their teachers and reminds them of their vocation.' 
Bernard Trafford, headmaster, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

'The jump from GCSEs to A-levels is big, though it does vary from one subject to the next. My colleagues in the Maths and Modern Foreign Languages departments can have issues with candidates who get As and A*s at GCSE when they move on to A-levels and expect to be attaining the same sorts of grades. When this does not happen they find it hard to accept. In the move from GCSE to A-level, there is a jump in workload, there is a jump in conceptual difficulty and there is a jump in the way in which questions are both framed and marked. I think the best A-level practice is more likely to be closer to first year undergraduate work than it is to GCSE work, especially for stronger candidates. My own experience as a history teacher would bear this out, and former pupils have come back to me and said how well A-levels have prepared them for first year undergraduate work.'
John Moreland, headmaster, Polam Hall School, Darlington

Published in: January 2014

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