Slimmed-down A-level law course still causing division in universities

New-style A-levels intended to tighten up study areas and cut workload; law degree providers still split on course’s relevance By Gemma Charles

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 Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations board (OCR), 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 (see table).

Chris Turner, the OCR chief examiner for AS and A2 law, said: “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 ProsecutionServiceand remedies on the contract paper.

Previously, students could also go through the A-level without having to apply law, but the new system makes it compulsory, said Turner. Jacqui Sparks, programme manager of Bridgwater College, which will be running the new A-level, said: “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”, said 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 highlighted the added emphasis on legal skills as a positive move, as it would 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 maintained.

But the usefulness of A-level law for students going on to read law at university is hotly debated. No university that Lawyer 2B spoke to admitted todiscriminatingagainst A-level law students, but clearly some had reservations.

Ian Dennis, head of the law department at University College London, said: “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, said: “Don’t do law because you think it will help at university. My personal view is that you’re better off doing other things at A-level and waiting to do it at degree level.” And in a damning indictment to proponents of A-level law, he added: “The law taught at year 12 is not going to be relevant to what you’re taught at university.”

ButJamieGlister, 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 that hasn’t been coloured. The worrying thing when you look at the Ucas applications,” he continued, “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 Wolverhampton capacity, Turner said he found the attitude of those opposed to A-level law “insulting” and “a nonsense”, as he claimed it was “a very good introduction to a degree in law”. He also pointed out that there were representatives from higher education on the OCR’s A-level law criteria panel.

Turneradmittedthat misgivings might have been justified when the A-level was first introduced in the 1980s, as teachers “did not necessarily understand everything and were entirely led by the textbooks”, but he claimed they were now doing “sparkling work”.

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

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

OCR six unit A-level scheme of assessment (current structure)
Level Unit title Duration (hours) Weighting towards whole A-level
AS (%) Adv GCE (%)
AS Machinery of Justice 1 30 15
AS Legal Personnel 1 30 15
AS Sources of Law 1.5 40 20
A2 Criminal Law 1 or
Law of Contract 1 or
Law of Torts
11.5 N/A 15
A2 Criminal Law 2 or
Law of Contract 2 or
Law of Torts 2
1.5 N/A 15
A2 Criminal Law Special Study or
Law of Contract Special Study or
Law of Torts Special Study
1.5 N/A 20

OCR four unit A-level scheme of assessment
Level Unit title Duration (hours) Weighting
AS (%) Adv GCE (%)
AS English Legal System 2 60 30
AS Sources of Law 1 40 20
A2 Criminal Law with 2 N/A 30
Criminal Law Special Study or 1.5 20
A2 Law of Contract with 2 N/A 30
Law of Contract Special Study 1.5 20

Source: OCR