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A-level faces new bac threat

Tomlinson's ideas live on in another diploma. Warwick Mansell reports

A new baccalaureate-style qualification, which has many similarities to the diploma recommended by Sir Mike Tomlinson last year, was unveiled this week by Cambridge university's examinations division.

The model, which could be called the Cambridge baccalaureate, will be targeted at private British schools and overseas students and is expected to be offered within two years.

Its arrival is another challenge to A-levels, amid frustration in many schools at the Government's rejection of the Tomlinson inquiry call for a diploma.

Details of the qualification, from University of Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), have yet to be finalised. But a consultation paper, published this week, suggests it would feature:

* A common core programme of study, plus a choice of optional subjects.

* Subject options at three levels: subsidiary, advanced and advanced plus.

* An "extension" section, such as an investigation, critical thinking or cross-curricular paper.

* It would be graded at six levels, from "distinction plus" to fail.

There is continuing unhappiness about the A-level among private schools in particular and among some universities.

This summer, Geoff Lucas, general secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, wrote that the A-level was in terminal decline because it failed to discriminate between the best candidates and broke up the qualification into "bite-sized pieces".

This week's consultation paper offered a damning commentary on the alleged failings of GCSEs and A-levels, arguing that pressure for change was coming from several directions.

British universities found it difficult to decide which students to select.

Employers said that school-leavers, while gaining qualifications, failed to acquire a sound grasp of key skills.

And schools and teachers "experience the practical constraints of a system which encourages module resits, over-prescriptive coursework tasks and a fragmentation of the curriculum".

A focus group of senior teachers from Cambridge schools and sixth-form colleges, consulted on the new exam, said GCSEs and A-levels were failing to prepare students adequately for university study.

These points echo those made by Sir Mike following an 18-month review of the qualifications system which concluded a year ago.

The proposed new qualification appears to differ from the Tomlinson model in one key respect, in that assessment at the end of each module, favoured by Sir Mike, would not be possible under the Cambridge exam.

The new exam is likely to become a competitor for the International Baccalaureate, offered by around 50 British schools.

However, state schools and colleges are unlikely to be able to take it up at this stage, as CIE has not sought accreditation from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

The consultation paper, "Towards a Cambridge Pre-University Qualification", is available at


The Tomlinson model:

* Choice of main specialist subjects.

* Supplementary courses on these subjects.

* Extended project - functional maths, literacy and communication and ICT.

* Students entitled to take part in "wider activities": arts, sports, volunteering - graded at four levels: distinction to fail.

The International Baccalaureate:

* Students study six subjects from six subject groups: two languages, sciences, the arts, humanities and computing.

* Three or four of the six subjects taken at a higher level, the others at standard level.

* Students complete an extended essay, plus a theory of knowledge course and encouraged to take part in arts, sports or volunteering.

* Each subject graded from 1 (worst) to 7 (best). Students need to gain 24 marks out of 45 to pass.

The new Cambridge exam:

* Students study a "common programme", plus optional subjects.

* No requirement on students to study subjects from different areas of knowledge, such as an arts subject and a science.

* Curriculum extension: students required either to take a course emphasising critical thinking, complete an extended essay or investigation, with viva, or a cross-curricular paper.

* Graded at six levels: distinction plus to fail.

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