1985 to 2004

Following the replacement in 1988 of the CSE and ‘O’ level examinations with the all-embracing GCSEs, it was inevitable that the quality of the ‘A’ level chemistry examination would suffer.

The GCSE Science (Double Award) examination was the main culprit – a most inadequate foundation for the study of science, it had had the demanding topics of ‘O’ level removed, and involved only a superficial study of chemistry, biology and physics, combined. It examined then, as it still does today, a student’s ability to recall a limited number of facts but not to understand concepts or reason scientifically. Able students obtaining the highest grades in this examination thus lacked the adequate preparation which was required for the old-style ‘A’ level chemistry examination, but more worryingly, scientifically inept students, who previously would have failed chemistry ‘O’ level, could now obtain the required GCSE qualifications to commence studying chemistry at ‘A’ level.

Anticipating the influx of ill-prepared candidates to 'A' level chemistry, the examination boards introduced new, easier 'A' level syllabuses. One board mentioned in its shortened syllabus, under the heading of 'Deletions', a list of over 50 areas of chemistry that were 'no longer required for examination purposes'.

Furthermore, the mathematical requirements for ‘A’ level chemistry were reduced in order that students with a poorer grasp of rudimentary mathematics could cope. Calculations, concepts and laws, which were once covered and mastered at ‘O’ level, were now part of this new ‘A’ level syllabus.

In the mid-nineties ‘A’ level chemistry was modularized. This involved dividing the syllabus into small sections and examining each section in a specific module; modules could be taken, or re-taken, at various stages throughout the two year course and topics and concepts encountered in one module were generally not examined in another. 

Chemistry is not naturally amenable to modularization. It has very few ‘self-contained’ topics – almost all require ‘cross-referencing’ (as the pre-modular syllabus used to describe it) to other parts of the syllabus in order to be understood fully. Modularizing ‘A’ level chemistry and maintaining its integrity and rigour was thus impossible, but still it was shrunk to fit the new modular format. Consequently, most modules comprised structured questions of reduced depth and variety. Some examination boards had introduced a synoptic module which examined the candidate on the entire syllabus. This was in an attempt to retain the superior quality of the pre-modular examination – an attempt which failed because the synoptic module constituted only 20% of the total A-level marks.

Therefore success in chemistry, which was previously enjoyed by students who were able to remember the vast array of subject material and link the various topics through underlying principles, was now available to those weaker candidates who relied upon short-term cramming and little understanding.    

Currently, students are studying Curriculum 2000. This maintains the modular nature of the previous examination but the modules contain even fewer topics. Students are given the most elementary of calculations – balanced chemical equations are frequently provided and ordered steps guide even the most inept candidate through. The ability to reason for oneself is no longer essential to obtain a grade A.

Much of the early modules are of a quality comparable to, or lower than, ‘O’ level, and topics which were once encountered in the first year of the old ‘A’ level have now been elevated to the second year modules. To accommodate these changes, the harder aspects of second year chemistry have been removed altogether.

There is also a wide variation in syllabus content across the examination boards. For example, one board has moved a vast quantity of difficult, core material to an option module, allowing teachers and students to avoid these topics by simply selecting an easier option. Discrepancies such as these existed before Curriculum 2000 – one board in the 1990s not only placed core material in option modules, but also completely failed to provide a synoptic module.

The more immediate and worrying consequence of the decline in the quality of ‘A’ level chemistry is the lowering of the intellectual barrier that once prevented ambitious, but academically unsuitable, candidates from embarking upon a degree course in medicine. Universities now have the almost impossible task of selecting the best candidates from the multitude of applicants, all of whom have grades A. Inevitably, many previously unworthy candidates are now accepted, and one can only hope that university examinations are sufficiently rigorous to root them out.

/The author is a private tutor.

June 2004.  


Chairman: Chris McGovern.  Tel: 07757 715145.  Email: [email protected]
Vice-Chairman: Katie Ivens.  Tel: 07990 997215
Treasurer: Dr WAD Freeman. Email: [email protected]
Secretary: Alison McRobb. Email: [email protected]