These are new exams that have been introduced to the British National Curriculum. The fact that this curriculum is followed by many institutions throughout the world means that the changes are particularly important. AS stands for 'Advanced Subsiduary', and in points 1 value they are the equivalent to half an A-level, although they cover the slightly easier parts of the course. They are designed make the transition from GCSE to A level easier on the student, while at the same time allowing for a greater breadth of learning.
Previous attempts to expand the curriculum led to AO levels, which were a bridge between A levels and the old O-levels (equivalent to GCSE's); earlier AS levels, which were exactly half an A-level, both by content and by value; and S levels, which were taken as an extension to the A level course and are still available, although they are becoming less popular, as the principle reason for their existance was for universities to differentiate between the able and the extremely able. Universities tend to trust their own entrance exams now to pick out exceptionally gifted students, and therefore their is much less demand for S levels.
AS levels are taken in the first year of sixth form, year twelve, which the student enters usually aged sixteen. They are a new system designed to give greater breadth to the average sixth former, thus bringing the British Curriculum in line with other European countries which take significantly more subjects at post-sixteen level, allowing for a broader education thought to be more valuable in industry.
In the year before they enter sixth form, the student chooses four subjects they wish to take to AS level, as opposed to the three which students were normally allowed to take before(there have been cases of students taking four, five or even more, but normally a student would concentrate on three). The next year- the A2 year-they choose which subject to drop and then continue with the other three. The idea was that student would take the normal three subject related to each other preparing them for university, and then be able to take another, unrelated subject, which they enjoyed, giving them a broader education.
Of course the inevitable happened, and the science students chose and extra science subject, the communications students chose and extra language and so on. This was not because they didn't want a broader education; it was more because they didn't want universities to think they weren't commited to their subjects.
The exams are designed to place emphasis on constant study, rather than one exam at the end of two years deciding your grade, and if you had a headache tough luck, you just failed. This system focuses on three exams for the AS year, plus coursework, per subject, and three exams per A2 year, plus coursework, per subject.
This was a very rude awakening for sixth form students, who had been expecting to spend the first year doing nothing other than working out exactly how much drink/drugs/very loud music they could take without permanently damaging their brains. They were thrown straight into almost A-level standard work, a big jump from GCSE standard work, in september, and expected to learn enough to pass up to four exams in january.
For some subjects there is a choice as to whether to hold the exams in January or June, but unluckily for the student this choice is made by their teachers, who base this choice on when the other teachers from other schools are choosing to have their exams.
Being modular, the AS levels keep the students updated throughout the course as to their progress. It also means that if they do badly in an exam they have the opportunity to raise their average by working exceptionally hard for the rest of the course. Furthermore, when they apply to UCAS2, the organisation through which students apply for university places, they have evidence of their progress and suitability for the course.
2001 is the first year that the new AS' have been widely implemented. The principle problem reported by teachers so far is one of workload; they now have to prepare students for three external official exams per year, which means they have to cover a lot of extra material. Many teachers are having to call back their sudents during the half-term holidays before the exams purely to finish the syllabus. In fact, this problem was reported during the pilot year, but has re-emerged.
Key skills is another problem. Alongside their courses students are expected to take three KS courses, in numeracy, communication and information technology(IT). This becomes a problem because students, as well as sitting exams in these subjects, have to produce a portfolio demonstrating their skills, including presentations in lessons and other similar activities. This frequently means that teachers have to give up valuable teaching time in order to set projects which cover the key skills.
Key skills are also a headache for students, who are not taking them seriousely and view them as a waste of time, especially those who are being forced to take numeracy KS when they are already doing maths AS, or communication when the already do English. In addition to this, there is wide doubt as to whether universities and employers will consider Key Skills as relevent qualifications, since not all schools offer the opportunity to take them to their students. Although they are worth quite a lot of points, if not all students take them it would be unfair and discriminatory to take these additional points into consideration.
The new system is designed to broaden the British education system. It allows students to take more subjects, and gives them basic qualifications in essential skills whatever the subjects they choose. The strategy of constant examination means that students are encouraged to work hard throughout the year, and they consequently develop a mature attitude to their own private study.
The system is having problems which are not being addressed by the government, and only when they are conquered can it be called a success.