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The Perse School Cambridge: 'Blast from the past' a source of anxiety for students

Head teacher at The Perse - Ed Elliott. Picture: Keith Heppell
Head teacher at The Perse - Ed Elliott. Picture: Keith Heppell

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, 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 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 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 so there are only three linear qualifications from day one.

The Perse has resisted this move. We do not want to narrow the lower-sixth curriculum prematurely and deny pupils the opportunity to study a fourth subject. We also know from experience that making the right subject choices is a key determinant of exam 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 four-subject lower-sixth programme of study is that students can decide which subject to drop on the basis of actual A-level experience.

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.

The combination of linear exams and higher grade offers can be stressful. Students require pastoral support from their tutors and general well-being 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 up sixth-formers 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.

While 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.

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