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Bac may be the way forward

Emma Burstall on a controversial Welsh scheme to knock A-levels off their pedestal.

Proposals for a new Welsh baccalaureate, which would replace traditional A-levels and merge academic and vocational post-16 qualifications, have received a mixed response.

The Welsh bac is the idea of John David, former head of Radyr comprehensive, Cardiff, and Colin Jenkins, principal of the United World College of the Atlantic in South Glamorgan. Both were involved in the development and introduction of the International Baccalaureate and it is the only course on offer at Colin Jenkins' international sixth-form college.

Dr Bill Lambert, deputy secretary of the main Welsh examining body, said the time was ripe for a change in the A-level system, but the bac concept needed refining.

"It is an interesting idea, but any action will have to wait until we have seen Sir Ron Dearing's report on 16-19 education," he said.

Sir Ron, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, is due to report on his plans for a shake-up of 16-19 qualifications in England at Easter. He is thought to be considering a more integrated system, bringing academic and vocational qualifications closer together. But he is unlikely to propose any radical reform of A-levels.

Tom Davies, director of education in Cardiff, said: "We would prefer the proposals to have been about Welsh schools going into the International Baccalaureate and a wider Europe rather than a narrower Wales. But anything that can start the debate about broadening A-levels has to be encouraged. "

Mr David said the impetus for the idea came from a strong feeling that A-levels lacked breadth and post-16 qualifications should be brought more in line with those in other parts of Europe. Their proposals were contained in a report published last week by the Institute of Welsh Affairs, an independent research group based in Cardiff.

"I think we're on a good wicket here," he said. "We've based our thinking on the IB, which has the highest academic credibility and is much less narrow than A-levels. Also, we want to make vocational qualifications an integrated part of the system, not something tagged on as a second best."

Mr Jenkins added: "The IB has proved that a broader programme can be achieved without loss of intellectual rigour. Indeed, there is a very high incidence of people getting first-class honours degrees.

"In Europe there is supposed to be mobility of labour, but how mobile can a young person be if he or she does not have a second language? A-levels do not prepare students for today's world."

Mr Jenkins said: "If Sir Ron Dearing recommends a new British bac it might do away with the need for a Welsh one. But if he comes up with a free menu, where schools can choose from a range of qualifications, some old, some new, many will probably opt for A-levels because they are familiar and universities recognise them. We think there is something better than that."

John Williams, chief executive of ACAC, the Welsh curriculum and assessment authority, said: "The whole area of qualifications at 16-19 is a matter of debate. It will be interesting to see how the latest proposals fit with Sir Ron's report."

All students doing the Welsh bac would take core studies including theory of knowledge, global concerns, RE, information technology, community partnership and action, and PE.

In addition they would choose six subjects from a range of academic core skills, three at Higher and three at Standard level. They would pick general national vocation qualification units, or mix and match academic and vocational options. There would be a strong Welsh dimension.

Students who successfully completed the course would be awarded a diploma while others would get a certificate recording each element successfully fulfilled.

"Introducing a Welsh bac would be an immense task that would take several years to complete. What we want is to put the subject into everybody's consciousness," Mr David added.

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