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Down to earth on A-level myths

Here we are, ready to go on another grand circus parade of mythical misconceptions about the GCE A-level. Ringmaster Eric Macfarlane (Sir Ron and the great However, TES, April 12) is ready to lead the parade with his circus analogy, but had he spent less time watching the trapeze artist, he would have known that A-levels have changed considerably over the last 45 years.

Their fitness for purpose has not changed, nor has their rigour and credibility and Sir Ron Dearing did well to emphasise that in his report. It is no secret. Students, parents and employers know it too. That is why the number of A-levels taken nationally has increased by 6 per cent in the last five years to over 750,000, while the number of 18-year-olds has decreased by 22.6 per cent.

At a stroke, parity of esteem is achieved for the 94,000 entries in A-level "vocational" subjects, such as business studies, law, physical education, photography and theatre studies, because the same rigorous rules are applied to all GCE A-levels, regardless of whether they are deemed to be "academic" or "vocational". With an 81 per cent increase in the vocational entry over the last five years, the total number of students taking these examinations now accounts for 12.5 per cent of the entire A-level national entry.

The pre-eminence of the A-level depends on its rigour and relevance to the real worlds of higher and further education, and employment in the 21st century.

A vocational A-level option has always been available. The Associated Examining Board was established specifically to bring that element into the new GCE system in the 1950s. Other boards followed.

Plastering, plumbing and bricklaying could be taken as separate O-levels and building construction and surveying as A-levels. These O-levels were available until the GCSE replaced them. Building and engineering examinations, however, continued into the GCSE system, until national curriculum restrictions killed them off or otherwise displaced them.

The Built Environment is the latest vocational examination to be introduced by the AEB in partnership with the Construction Industry Training Board and City and Guilds. The first students sitting the examination, this year will have had direct links with engineers, architects and surveyors through the CITB curriculum entries and databases, ensuring an authentic practical dimension to their work. The examination will be assessed by the full rigour of the A-level rules, and consequently will enjoy universal acceptance.

A BTEC-AEB pilot scheme in the 1980s allowed students to study common first-year courses before finally opting for A-level or BTEC science examinations in their final year. And A-level physics, chemistry, biology and modern languages were linked directly with industry in the pilot Wessex project, which helped to develop the modular concept in A-level. These developments were ahead of their time, but now they are heralded by Dearing and the Gatsby Charitable Foundation as the precursor of the so-called "Y-model".

Modularity and coursework do upset some people, especially when applied to A-levels. But what is good for the goose is good for the gander if parity of esteem and common sense are to prevail. Extensive use of these methods of assessment in higher and further education cannot be condoned if considered unreliable or the underlying cause of less rigorous qualifications. If equivalence is paramount, modularity and coursework cannot be unnaturally restricted in one system only, such as A-level, while left to operate unfettered in others.

One accolade is due from Mr Macfarlane. His promise of a modest celebration, if we could be sure that "the options for breadth of study, skills acquisition and mixed academic and vocational courses would be extensively taken up by A-level students", is already on track and will be achieved if the increased numbers taking A-level vocational subjects are allowed to grow naturally without being artificially legislated against.

Thankfully, "the stultifying aridity" and the "compartmentalised factual knowledge" required in the 1950s has long gone. We can be sure that our A-level students too are operating with precision, while keeping in tune with best practice.

Too many of our curriculum planners are entranced by the clown on the trapeze, whilst missing the real action on the ground.

John Day is secretary general of the Associated Examining Board

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