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Exams boss backs A-level supremacy

QCA chief says 'world-class' exam must be at core of taskforce's model for English bac. Warwick Mansell reports

THE A-level is a "world-class" qualification which must remain the basis of any new baccalaureate-style diploma for England's schools, exams regulator Ken Boston said this week.

In an interview with The TES before the publication of results next week, Dr Boston said that students could be confident that standards had been maintained, whether or not the pass rate improved.

The Australian chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority entered the debate triggered by last month's report from the taskforce led by Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector, which is investigating a baccalaureate-style diploma for secondary school pupils.

Dr Boston said he welcomed a baccalaureate-style qualification - but only if it built on the strengths of the A-level.

He strongly backed the 50-year-old exam after the most traumatic year in its history. "The quality you've got here in an A-level is equal to anything in the world. If you look at young people who are achieving As and Bs in some subjects, it's equivalent to a first-year university standard in other countries. This is international best practice."

The taskforce's interim report last month attacked A-levels for narrowing sixth-form study. Mr Tomlinson wants the diploma to replace A-levels, not exist alongside them.

Dr Boston refused to directly criticise the taskforce's suggestion but said: "The baccalaureate should be seen as an extension of current developments, not something that will replace a qualification which is somehow discredited, because the A-level is not discredited."

The taskforce may find it difficult to reconcile its position wth Dr Boston's.

Dr Boston admitted that last year's regrading furore, centring on claims that work was marked down to cut the number of top grades, left many sixth-formers questioning the value of A-levels.

But he said measures taken this year should avert any major problem with results next Thursday. "After Thursday, students will be reassured because I think things will go smoothly," he said.

Asked about the return of the annual "dumbing down" debate next week should grades go up again, he said that any rise would reflect real improvements in the education system.

He said:"The A-level is a world-class qualification that provides, this year, next year, the year after that, a world-class foundation on which young people can build their lives and careers."

Even if there is a repeat of last year's problems, Dr Boston has said he will not resign. "I'm not in the business of giving up if there are problems," he said.

Despite warning six months ago that he could not guarantee the smooth running of the exams, he said: "I am cautiously confident we can get through this process without a major problem of any sort."

The QCA had attended 113 meetings this year where final grade boundaries for A-level modules were set. Not one had seen an exam board chief executive override the advice of senior examiners about where grade boundaries should be set, as Ron McLone of the OCR board did last year.

The exam boards had recruited more examiners than last year, he said, and schools had also benefited from booklets which made clear what standards were expected of students to get each grade.

Dr Boston also gave details of his plans to overhaul how papers are set and marked. In future, students' scripts would not travel by post from schools to examiners, but by secure courier, he said.

Pressed on the Pearson publishing group's takeover of the Edexcel board, Dr Boston said he had "absolutely no problem" with private sector involvement because of a range of safeguards the QCA could deploy as regulator.

A torrid year,Interview, 7

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