Saturday, March 27, 1999 Published at 00:37 GMT
Beyond the A level
The government is reforming the A level system
By Gary Eason
The government is promising that its intention to broaden the A level curriculum will not result in a lowering of standards.
Speaking at a conference on post-16 education in Leeds, the Education Minister Baroness Blackstone said the skills young people needed to succeed in the next century would be achieved through a broader programme of study.
"But extra breadth will strengthen A levels, making them more demanding," she added. "I want as many schools and colleges as possible to grasp the opportunities the new curriculum offers and introduce the changes from September next year."
But some schools would say they are doing that already - through the International Baccalaureate (IB) diploma.
Sevenoaks School, Kent, is one of only a few dozen schools in the UK which let pupils take the IB. It has decided to phase out A levels completely, and from 2006 will be offering only the IB.
The headmaster, Tommy Cookson, says the IB offers his pupils a great breadth of study and means they do not have to give up particular subjects at the age of 16. He gives the example of a scientist who, if he or she were to take A levels, would study maths, physics and chemistry.
"The IB does not allow those pupils to confine themselves to those three subjects. It insists that they should do English as well. It insists that they should do a foreign language. And it insists that they should do a humanity. I think this is very important," he told BBC Radio 4's You and Yours.
Over two years, the pupils study three subjects at higher level - equivalent to A level, and three at subsidiary level. To qualify for an IB diploma, they must get at least four marks out of seven in each subject or 24 points in all.
Mr Cookson says this more demanding than the A level syllabus, but not impossibly so.
"The degree of difficulty in any subject is no higher than the degree of difficulty in any A level, but of course to tackle the IB requires a much higher degree of personal organisation and a certain degree of determination.
"At Sevenoaks School at least, anybody who qualifies is more than capable of tackling the IB and coming out with a very respectable diploma."
There has been some concern that universities and employers would not be as willing to accept the IB qualification as being equivalent to A level, but Mr Cookson says this is not his experience. Last year 95% of his pupils who sat the IB were offered places by their first choice of university, and employers are just as supportive.
"The employers, when they talk to IB candidates, are exceptionally relieved to find that they have such a broad education. To say no more, many employers will be thrilled that IB candidates will be able to speak a modern foreign language."
It is estimated that A level students in the UK are at their desks for 12 hours fewer each week than French students studying for their baccalaureate exams. This is a factor with sixth formers at Sevenoaks.
"It does have its problems. It is a heavy workload," said one pupil, Catherine. "A level people say: 'Well, we work longer' - because they do their exams in June and we take ours in May - but overall I think we definitely work harder.
"But it's worth it and you come out with more options. I didn't know what I wanted to do and A levels would have been very narrow for me. I can keep my options open."
The headmaster hopes attitudes will change.
"If you are convinced that the IB offers a first class education, which many people are, then of course you will move heaven and earth to introduce it into your school. But it's like all changes - they need a great deal of hard work."
With a broadening of the A level curriculum planned, will more secondary schools go down the same road?
Ian Andain is head of Broadgreen Community Comprehensive School in Liverpool, which has gone over totally to the International Baccalaureate.
"Very simply, we believe it's an inherently better examination," he said.
"Obviously certain parents and certain students showed some resistance to it, but there are signs that that resistance is melting away and that more and more parents are convinced of the quality of the examination.
"Not every university is sophisticated enough to equate it with A level grades and there are some indications that admissions tutors actually ask far too much in terms of the points score for the baccalaureate, but most universities certainly recognise the IB and they have got a more sophisticated method of equivalence which allows students the opportunity of a reasonable place."
"Examination inertia is a terrible thing. This debate has been going on in this country since the Higginson Report of the mid-1980s, which castigated A levels, but I actually believe that it's very difficult to obtain change when something has been around for as long as A levels - even though they themselves were subject to considerable criticism when they were introduced.
"But it's something that's got to come. It really must be reformed in a way that makes sense for the 21st Century.
"I find it quite depressing in many respects that more secondary schools and indeed the government has not recognised that A levels are not suitable any longer for the nature of educational demands that are going to be made on young people in the next century."
Unsuitable for all
Gareth Matthewson, a headteacher in Cardiff who speaks for the National Association of Head Teachers, said he thought the IB had a great deal to commend it, not least the breadth of study involved - but was not suitable for less academically able pupils.
"We would like to raise the achievement of all young people, and offering a baccalaureate-style approach is one good way of doing that."
But there were problems - one being cost.
"My exam fees in my school are about £70,000 a year. That would easily double if we were to go down the road of the IB.
"And also it offers no parity of esteem between vocational qualifications and academic qualifications."