Sixth form choices

Library interior

When Nick Tait, the architect of the AS system and latterly head of Winchester College, laid his AS plans in the late 1990s, the idea was that many students would do five AS Levels. The government really believed this and soldiered on its belief in spite of schools looking at the syllabi, shaking their heads and saying that four would be it. Breadth was everything, as was the desire to give more sixth formers something to take away at the end of a truncated (one year of) sixth form. Modular was king and ruled, allowing many bites at the cherry – so if it’s January or June, you are taking or re-taking exams. Of course, it all settled down after the heady early days – grade inflation roared away. Universities were only ever interested in three good A Levels and for the majority of students, taking four AS Levels in Lower Sixth became a way of having, yes, a teeny bit more breadth but mainly a means of ensuring the you ended up with the right three A Levels in your final year, so people started on four and narrowed to their best three.

It is with this awareness very much in mind that last week’s subject fair for Block 5 (Year 11) parents and students takes place. Things have become much more complicated; this is not because the system is complicated – it will eventually be a simpler system and one that most parents of teenagers are familiar with because they sat it themselves – but because the old AS system and the new A Levels are running alongside each other for several years. In with the new – no modules or re-takes and a test at the end of two years = linear. Out with the old (as above…) but not quite yet.

So, it is Friday and we are all in our beautiful library and on the hunt for the perfect combination – here is Economics – and it’s linear, all shiny and new, so let’s get a sense of what new Peston-like complexities are involved. There is Maths – familiar chap, still waiting in the wings to fledge from modular to linear, but it may not be until 2017 that he is ready to fly, so OK for the time being. The fair is new to us – and we find it useful; so, it seems do our parents. We will do it again next year as next year will still be complicated and there will be yet more subjects which are linear but still some soldiering on as modular.

At half time and over some delicious cakes that our catering manager Dave Greenman and his team have conjured up, I reinforce the mantra that universities will continue to be looking for three good A Levels – and that nothing should get in the way of that.

Encouragingly, Block 5 students and their parents are taken by the idea of the enrichment courses that we will be running alongside the A Levels. This works through a simple principle: the narrower your examined programme, the more enrichment you are required to do – so the three A Levels (from the start) people do maximum enrichment, those doing four A Levels and an extended project, would do very little additional compulsory enrichment as their programme is already broad and full. Many will want to opt into enrichment courses voluntarily, it seems.

The other additional feature that is shaping up well is the three week pre-sixth form session for Block 5s after their IGCSEs are finished in mid-June. This will allow them to take five subjects for that period, enabling them to gain a proper taste of what an A Level is really like. At that same time it will allow their teachers to have them do plenty of skills-based work which will ensure that they are going to be able to manage the technical side of the syllabus. I think that in all it is going to work rather well for us.


Bedales School is one of the UK’s top independent private co-education boarding schools. Bedales comprises three schools situated in Steep, near Petersfield, Hampshire: Dunannie (ages 3–8), Dunhurst (ages 8–13) and Bedales itself (ages 13–18). Established in 1893 Bedales School puts emphasis on the Arts, Sciences, voluntary service, pastoral care, and listening to students’ views. Bedales is acclaimed for its drama, theatre, art and music. The Headmaster is Keith Budge.