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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 February, 2004, 12:19 GMT
A-levels face another shake-up
By Gary Eason
BBC News Online education editor

exam room
Universities say it is hard to distinguish between the top pupils
A shake-up of A-level grades is expected to be proposed in the interim review of qualifications for 14 to 19 year olds in England.

The aim will be to end the problem of top universities' being unable to distinguish between numerous candidates with A grades.

The change would be within the context of new diplomas of school achievement - specialist or general - of which A-level modules would be only a part.

And the names might change - with the QCA qualifications regulator working on a way of assigning common "credits" to all qualifications, so they are more readily understood by everyone.

Grading fiasco

The 14 to 19 education review, being undertaken by a team led by Mike Tomlinson, is due to present its thinking for consultation next week, with a final report later in the year.

One problem it will be addressing is the "bunching" in the top A-level grades, which last year saw more than a fifth of all entries - 21.6% - being awarded an A.

The review team is understood to have rejected the idea once floated of having a new, higher A* grade, as was done with GCSEs some years ago.

Instead it is expected to propose changing the marks required to get each grade.

This is sensitive territory - it was the process of setting grade boundaries that lay at the heart of the A-level crisis in 2002, when the OCR exam board had to revise upwards the grades of almost 2,000 students.

Its chief executive, Ron McLone, had over-ruled his most senior examiners in deciding where to set grade boundaries for some papers.

Compulsion

An issue flagged up then by Mike Tomlinson - who was also asked to investigate the fiasco - was the difficulty in combining the marks from the two parts of the new A-level, AS and A2.

His new review might well repeat the proposal to "de-couple" the two to create free-standing qualifications, marked and graded separately.

Last summer, giving a progress report, Mr Tomlinson suggested there be entry, intermediate, foundation and advanced diplomas.

These would equate to the competence expected at 14, lower GCSE level (grades D to G), upper GCSE level (grades A* to C) and A-level.

He also thought an element of compulsion might be a good way to broaden young people's study at advanced level.

Mike Tomlinson
Mike Tomlinson is leading the review
So a student taking history and geography could be told they had to study statistics, and someone taking business studies could be made to take a modern foreign language.

A source familiar with the review said that idea had now been dropped.

But the advanced diplomas would involve additional elements, such as an extended essay and demonstrable research ability, to give students credit for a wider range of skills.

These might be more closely linked to the main modules in the case of the specialist diploma - for someone doing, say, maths, further maths and physics.

A general diploma would be pursued by someone studying, say, English, French and geography.

This sort of detail might not be spelled out in next week's interim report.

But in each case the idea would be that employers would regard "diploma students" as superior - giving the new qualification a "must have" appeal for youngsters, the source said.

Pathways

At the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) they are working on a wholesale review of what qualifications mean to people.

"It doesn't really matter whether Tomlinson goes for a diploma or anything else, the things that start to make a difference are if we get alignment in how credits and levels are counted," said the QCA's head of workforce development, Mary Curnock Cook, whose primary concern is vocational qualifications.

Mary Curnock Cook
Mary Curnock Cook: Seeking "a clear language" about qualifications
"What we are trying to do is get some sort of currency that people understand.

"It's probably a mystery to people. They might have heard of City and Guilds and BTec but they don't really know what it means in terms of achievement."

She said the National Qualifications Framework "is not really a framework, it's a list".

"We are looking to have a core occupational pathway and some very clear language about levels and credits."

She was less concerned with the sheer number of qualifications than with how they were organised.

If someone said they had, for example, a Level 3 qualification, everyone would know what that meant - whether they had done a one-day course or a term's study or three years at college.

"Therefore it doesn't matter whether it's an A-level or a diploma."

The Department for Education and Skills is also planning to change the way school and college performance tables are presented, to recognise a wider range of vocational qualifications.




SEE ALSO:
Employers oppose exams overhaul
02 Feb 04  |  Education
A-levels and IB 'hard to compare'
29 Dec 03  |  Education
'Compulsory A-levels' reform idea
17 Jun 03  |  Education
Diploma could replace A-levels
16 Jul 03  |  Education
Baccalaureate could replace A-levels
21 Jan 03  |  Education
Vocational options for bored pupils
21 Jan 03  |  Education


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