Sixth-form curriculum reforms long overdue

YOUR correspondent, Leona Ip, (South China Morning Post, July 20) wrote to challenge the usefulness of the recently introduced Advanced Supplementary Level subjects (AS-levels) which are due to be examined for the first time in the 1994 A-level Examinations.

Her principal argument seems to be that the new AS-levels make such heavy demands on students that they may ''lead to poor academic performance, and this stress may result in adverse psychological effect.'' While there are obviously problems for both teachers and students when they belong to a group pioneering such major changes, the view of most educationalists in Hongkong is that these reforms to the sixth-form curriculum are long overdue.

Hongkong for a long time has had a narrow and excessively specialised sixth-form curriculum.

Typically, the course patterns have involved concentrating on three A-level subjects in the same discipline together with Use of English.

Moreover Chinese Language, the mother tongue of virtually all the candidates, has been ignored by 70 per cent of A-level candidates. The introduction of AS-level subjects, recommended in Education Commission Report No 2, was an attempt to broaden the curriculum by having the majority of students drop at least one A-level subject in favour of two AS-levels. (An AS-level is meant to be taught in half the number of periods as an A-level but to make the same demands in terms of intellectual rigour).

The second important change was to introduce Chinese Language and Culture as a core subject.

In order to make room for this new subject, the subject content of all the A-level examination syllabuses was cut by 20 per cent.

At the same time, the Curriculum Development Council's sixth-form subject committees, working alongside their Hongkong Examinations Authority (HKEA) counterparts, produced recommended period-allocation tables which indicated to teachers how the new AS-levels could be taught in half the number of periods allocated to the pruned A-levels.

Feedback currently being received from the schools indicates that the original plan to have two AS-levels equal one A-level is somewhat idealistic.

This appears to be due to the fact that fitting two different academic disciplines into the slot previously occupied by just one, in itself makes greater intellectual demands on the students.

So it seems this is not a matter of having miscalculated the period allocations - simple arithmetic doesn't seem to apply and two halves make greater demands than one whole.

Two responses are possible.

Firstly, the authority's subject committees will review all the new syllabuses after the first examinations in 1994.

If changes are considered necessary they can be initiated at that time.

Secondly, schools could change their course designs so that their less able students offered fewer subjects for the examination.

As a member of the Curriculum Development Council's Sixth Form Coordinating Committee, I know I speak for many of those who were intimately involved in the creation of AS-levels, both at the planning level and the individual subject level, when I make a plea for the co-operation of the seven local tertiary institutions who run degree programmes.

The success of the sixth-form reforms will depend on a number of factors, but at this juncture there is no greater need than for the tertiary institutions to recognise the value of AS-levels in at least two ways: To find some practical way to reward those who have a broader course pattern than the traditional three A-levels, for example, by ensuring that the entrance policies of the different faculties and departments within the institutions are so designed that more points are awarded for achievements in two AS-levels than would be the case for a corresponding grade in a single A-level; To encourage the offering of the AS-level subject of Liberal Studies as the simplest way to stress the skills and attitudes which are basic to being ''well-educated'' and which our approach to the traditional A-level subject does not sufficiently emphasise.

R. F. KING Deputy Secretary Hongkong Examinations Authority