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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 August 2006, 00:38 GMT 01:38 UK
What is the future for A-levels?
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

A-level results
The pass rate just keeps on rising
As the dust settled on this year's A-level results, it was a relief that we had not ended up with the old refrain of "pass rates up, standards must be down".

Instead we saw a revival of the debate about whether A-levels had passed their sell-by date.

This may have been rather hard for students who had just celebrated the rewards for two years hard work.

Yet there seem to be growing demands that, now they are well past their 50th birthday, A-levels should soon shuffle off into retirement.

When they were invented in 1951, A-levels were a grammar school type of exam, covering academic subjects and designed primarily to filter university entrants. Only a tiny proportion of 17/18-year-olds even attempted them.

At that time, A-levels still fitted the 19th century origins of testing, which began as a means of regulating and restricting entry to professions like law and medicine and to the civil service.

It is this pressure from the universities that is undermining confidence in A-levels

Over the past few decades, though, school testing has taken a different direction. The main aim is to assess whether candidates have mastered a set of skills and knowledge. It is no longer primarily about putting candidates in rank order.

Yet the universities still rely heavily on GCSE, AS, and A-level results to do just that. Now they are complaining that, with so many students achieving top grades, they can no longer distinguish between the best applicants.

It is this pressure from the universities that is undermining confidence in A-levels.

In an attempt to shore them the government is looking into various reforms: tougher questions, extension papers, the breakdown of grades into more detailed unit marks, and even an additional A* grade.

But there is a wider debate about what sort of examination is needed.

Diploma system

The proposals from the government commissioned inquiry, led by Sir Mike Tomlinson, seemed to many to be the natural successor to GCSEs and A-levels.

He proposed a diploma system that would combine academic and vocational courses, offering a graduated system of assessment ranging from key skills tests through to an extended project.

Most of the education world welcomed it. But the government neutered the proposal by insisting that the existing GCSE and A-levels would continue alongside the diploma.

For many this meant perpetuating the English tradition of a two-track testing system: one for academic pupils, another for the rest.

What the government had not foreseen, though, was how quickly confidence in the effectiveness of the A-level is evaporating.

International Baccalaureate

This is most evident in the spread of the International Baccalaureate (IB).

The IB diploma programme for 16-19 year-olds is a highly academic examination system that requires students to study six subjects, including maths, science and a language.

Students must also complete an extended essay.

There are now 87 schools in Britain offering the IB at sixth-form level.

If the IB does become the new academic gold standard, it will be important that all students, from all backgrounds, have access to it

There has been a spurt of interest over the past few years - five years ago there were only 32 schools doing the IB.

This year the number of IB candidates was 15,625. While that is still tiny compared to some 250,000 doing A-levels, it represents a 13% increase on the previous year. The IB used to be largely the preserve of independent, selective schools.

However, over the past few years, that has begin to change. Over half are now state schools.

The IB was given a major boost recently when the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) decided that, from 2008, it would be included in the points-score tariff used by universities for deciding admissions.

Ucas determined that a score of 35 points (out of a maximum of 45) in the IB would be the equivalent of four and a half A grades at A-level.

The few candidates who achieve the maximum 45 IB points would be deemed to have the equivalent of over six grade As at A-level.

Some newspapers have started to compile league tables using this new tariff. Not surprisingly, IB schools have shot up the tables.

The incentive of university points scores and league table performance seem certain to increase the number of new recruits to the IB.

Three-tier system

If the current trend continues, we will soon have three competing systems running alongside each other: A-levels, the IB, and the Tomlinson Diplomas.

It is hard to see how all three can thrive.

Fettes College (college photo)
Fettes College is one of the schools that uses the IB

The fear of some teachers' leaders is that the IB will become the new 'gold standard', offering the best route into the top universities but that it will continue to be available only at a small number of elite schools.

At the other end, the diploma could risk becoming primarily a vocational, non-university route.

And as for A-levels, they could start to struggle for a role.

This may seem fanciful at this point when only 87 schools are doing the IB and the first diploma courses have not yet started.

But the writing could be on the wall for A-levels. A swift decision by the government to incorporate A-levels into the new diplomas (as many school leaders wish) might yet avoid this scenario.

Many would argue that it does not matter - the market will decide which examinations flourish.

Many also believe it would, anyway, be better to have separate examination systems for pupils taking either the academic or the vocational route.

Open to all

There are two potential problems with this. First, it has long been seen as a weakness of the British education system that it undervalues the vocational route, seeing it as second best.

Our economy needs engineers, scientists, and health technicians who are not only vocationally trained but who also have flexible, academic skills in language, maths and science.

The other concern is that, depending on which school they attend, some young people will not have equal access to all examination systems.

While there are signs of the IB spreading beyond its initial hold in the independent or international school sector, there are still very few inner city comprehensives offering it.

If the IB does become the new academic gold standard, it will be important that all students, from all backgrounds, have access to it.

Top grade for 24.1% of A-levels
17 Aug 06 |  Education
Another two schools offer the IB
17 Aug 06 |  Education

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