A-level law students first to study new slimline courses

Law students will be among the first to sit a new-look A-level due to be launched next year.

For the first time since A-levels were reformed five years ago, students taking law or accountancy in 2006 will be able to sit four instead of six papers and the content will be cut. The move follows a recommendation in the Tomlinson report on the education of 14 to 19-year-olds, which called for the burden on A-level students and teachers to be reduced. By 2008 all exam boards will have to operate four instead of six unit models.

The law A-level is being launched by the OCR examination board, whose course was sat by 6,072 students this year, making it the second-largest A-level provider after the Assessments and Qualifications Alliance, which had more than 7,000 students sit its exam.

Under the new system, three one-hour papers at AS will be replaced by one two-hour and one one-hour paper. In the second year (A2), instead of three one-and-a-half-hour papers, there will be a one-and-a-half-hour paper and one two-hour paper.

Chris Turner, the OCR chief examiner for AS and A2 law, says: “One of the things teachers have been telling us is that it’s very difficult to get through the syllabus content.” So content cuts were made to topics that were not actually included in any exam papers. Topics that have made way include a detailed look at the Crown Prosecution Service and remedies on the contract paper.

Previously, students could also go through the A-level without having to apply law, but Turner says the new system makes this compulsory.

Jacqui Sparks, programme manager of Bridgwater College, which will be running the new A-level, says: “Teachers will be able to adopt a holistic way of teaching and learning the topics, rather than just teaching to the exam.”

The splits across subjects were “not always sensible”, says Sparks. For example, under the present format, questions on the legal defence of insanity appear on a different paper to those on diminished responsibility, despite the fact that the defences are both used for murder cases.

Sparks also highlights the added emphasis on legal skills as a positive move, as it will allow students to apply their knowledge more. “We have a lot that go on to law degrees. Every student who comes back has been glad they did their A-level law,” she maintains.

But the usefulness of A-level law for students going on to read law at university is hotly debated. Of the universities that The Lawyer’s sister title Lawyer 2B spoke to, none admitted to discriminating against A-level law students, but clearly some have reservations.

University College London law department head Ian Dennis says: “We’ve had problems with students who’ve done law at A-level as they’ve had to unlearn some of the habits picked up by doing this.”

Similarly, Professor James Crawford, chairman of the faculty of law at Cambridge, says: “My personal view is that [students] are better off doing other things at A-level and waiting to do [law] at degree level.” And in a damning indictment to proponents of A-level law, he adds: “The law taught at year 12 is not going to be relevant to what [students] are taught at university.”

But Jamie Glister, admissions tutor for Durham University’s law school, sums up the attitude of those against the A-level as “academic arrogance”, as they want “a clean slate to mould”. He adds: “The worrying thing when you look at the Ucas applications is that more pupils from state schools and further education colleges do A-level law. So discriminating against it has the effect of discriminating against those students.”

As well as being an OCR chief examiner, Turner is also a senior lecturer in law at Wolverhampton University. Speaking in his Wolver-hampton capacity, Turner says he found the attitude of those opposed to A-level law “insulting” and “a nonsense”, as he claims it is “a very good introduction to a degree in law”. He also points out that there are representatives from higher education on the OCR’s A-level law criteria panel.

Turner admits that misgivings might have been justified when the A-level was first introduced in the 1980s, as teachers “didn’t necessarily understand everything and were entirely led by the textbooks”, but he claims they are now doing “sparkling work”.

“If universities are going to turn around and make blasé statements about the credibility of A-level law, how about they put their money where their mouth is and do some empirical research into it?” challenges Turner.

If the challenge is taken up, the results could prove to be very interesting indeed.