When it comes to moving from GCSE to A Level, it often comes as a shock to students starting their A-levels to discover how big a step up in difficulty they are expected to take after completing their GCSEs. Nationally nearly 1 in 3 sixth-formers drop out of A-levels according to reported statistics (1), with drop out and failure rates being particularly high in maths (2). It is crucial to bridge that gap by having the right approach to study and the right support to be able to successfully make the transition.
I believe the GCSE curriculum doesn’t adequately prepare students to be able to tackle A-level, especially for areas of pure maths such as calculus and trigonometry – a view shared by many teachers (3). In science there is a particular problem for those students who have taken ‘double award’ Science at GCSE, only covering about two thirds of the full ‘triple science’ curriculum. And physics A-level becomes very mathematically challenging compared to GCSE.
However maths A-level continues to be a popular choice for good reason – it is needed for a wide range of degrees, and is invaluable in many careers (indeed the adults who come for tuition to help develop their professional skills often wish they had taken maths further at school). Science is of course essential for aspiring medics, engineers etc, and both maths and science are – in my biased opinion – very enjoyable and interesting subjects in their own right.
There has been some interesting academic research into why so many students find the transition to A-level so challenging, especially focused on A-level maths (4). One factor in success that such studies highlight is self-confidence in the subject and I have personally observed how the sudden leap in difficulty can hit the confidence of those students who have found GCSE relatively easy. This can be confounded by the pace of teaching that schools necessarily need to set in order to get through the large amount of material that must be covered on the A-level curriculum. Too many new sixth-formers quickly feel out of their depth and demotivated.
However the GCSE to A-level gap can of course be successfully bridged, and my role as a tutor is to provide ‘scaffolding’ to help my students build this bridge. In 1:1 sessions I have the time to break learning down into smaller steps, and to ensure that students have fully grasped the concepts they need before moving on. I also find that providing tips on how to manage their study time most effectively can be important as for most sixth-formers it’s the first time they’ve had more independence in organising their own learning, complete with free periods in their timetable.
It remains to be seen whether the new GCSE and A-level curricula being introduced in 2015 and 2016 respectively will make the transition any easier or whether the new exams will simply prove more demanding across the board. (5). However I am sure it will continue to be the case that, once students start to gain confidence working at the higher degree of difficulty that A-levels entail, it can start to actually be fun to get stuck into more complex questions and explore greater depths of understanding.