GCSE to AS level, the transition – the summer break, the freedom, the maturity and the challenges!

Last month it was reported that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, was preparing to replace GCSEs for England from autumn 2014 and to bring in a simpler exam for less academic teenagers. This announcement comes amid the on-going debate about the “dumbing down of GCSE’s, the accusation being that they do not stretch the more academic students. Whatever the merits of these arguments and proposals, it is the case that many students find the step from GCSE to A Level to be very challenging.

For those Yr 11 students who have just completed their GCSE’s, the exciting prospect of moving onto the 6th form beckons, possibly in a new school or college. However, this opportunity can also seem to be very far off in the future. The long summer break, stretching invitingly ahead, gives plenty of time to have fun and recover from the stress of revision and examinations. Summer should also be a time for reflection on their choice of subjects for the 6th form, which will hopefully be confirmed when the GCSE results are published in late August, and to prepare for the challenges of the move from GCSE to A-level.

For many students A-Levels will allow them to study in depth the subjects they enjoy and are passionate about. The move into the 6th form will give them new freedoms, such as no longer having to wear school uniform and having “free periods for study. Students are also able to leave school when their lessons finish rather than waiting for the end of the school day. The 6th form common room will provide a relaxing adult environment in which to socialise with their friends on comfortable seats rather than hard school desks and chairs! They will be taught in smaller groups by specialist teachers and treated as adults in the classroom and around the school. Many will take on leadership roles in the school, acting as role models for the younger students. All in all a huge change from Year 11.

They will also be expected to manage their own studies and not rely on the teachers to do this for them. Setting priorities and managing one’s own time to meet deadlines is one of the main skills to be mastered at A-level, a skill which is vital for success at university and in the world of work. However, many students new to the 6th form confuse this “freedom with “I will do what I want to do when I want to do it. They often treat “free periods as exactly that, rather than as a chance for independent study. Social life expands and fills the available time, home study slips can become prominent and some even skip timetabled lessons. As a result, far too many find themselves falling behind with their studies.

The situation some students find themselves in at the end of the first term of 6th form is often made worse because many are not prepared for the huge step up from GCSE, both in the scope and depth of knowledge required and the intellectual effort needed at A-level. Bridging the GCSE to A-level gap can be daunting. Lack of initial success can leave students disheartened and de-motivated and as a result they spend even less time and effort on their studies. With deadlines being missed, the gap becomes an ever widening chasm and they spiral downwards, failing to emerge with the grades they need and deserve.

Mastering the new complex concepts at A Level is demanding enough even if the student has the basic subject skills. Without them, however, many find that by the end of the first term in the 6th form they are struggling to keep up and are losing heart. Yes, the subjects at A level are difficult, but with good preparation, the right attitude to study and a determination to succeed all students can do well. Without all of these attributes, even the most able will find their journey in the 6th form a difficult and unrewarding experience.

Spending time before the new academic year starts on reviewing the syllabus of the subjects to be studied at A-Level can be very useful. In addition, doing some preparatory reading on the subjects, and revisiting the subject topics and concepts from GCSE will make the 6th form more enjoyable and successful. All subjects have their own specialist “toolkits which need to be mastered early to allow students to make good progress during the first year. For example, in Physics, the basic “toolkit contains mathematical, graphical and problem solving techniques; for History it may be analysis and interpretation of primary sources. A short intensive, introductory course during the summer or the first half term break of year 12 will be very useful in acquiring these skills.

Robert Cliff
Directors of Studies
MA. Cantab