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Ministers will not kill off A-levels for bac, say principals

Karen Gold reports on fears that exam reform could result in a 'token qualification'

COLLEGE principals do not believe the Government will abolish A-levels even if its task force on the future of 14 to 19 qualifications calls for them to be scrapped in favour of an English baccalaureate.

The political prospects for the task force, chaired by Professor Mike Tomlinson, were viewed with deep scepticism by all the college principals who spoke to FE Focus at the summer conference in Cambridge of the Association of Colleges and Sixth - Form Colleges Employers Forum.

What colleges want is a framework of qualifications with clear pathways open to everyone, and with equal prestige for general, specialist and vocational education (the task force's proposed threefold content), said AoC director of FE Development, Dr John Brennan.

They fear they will get a token overarching qualification, dominated by A-levels in the way they dominate the present system.

"If you design a bac that only the most able would get, that would not command widespread support in colleges. But if you can design a qualification that would have wide appeal and respond to the needs of the overwhelming majority, that would be a real step forward," Dr Brennan said.

Pre-emptive comments by Professor Tomlinson at the conference revealed he would meet the issue of A-level survival head-on: "If you have a baccalaureate you cannot have free-standing qualifications within it.

Otherwise, all you have got is a net thrown over a collection of qualifications," he said.

While the task force was not in a position to recommend scrapping A-levels for at least a year, he made it clear that the bac-type diploma in the blueprint, if accepted, would leave no option.

But Dr Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, warned that the hurdles for any new qualification to replace A-levels would be very high: "A-levels have been around and tested for many years. The standard at A-level is the world's best practice. It is extraordinarily high.

"I do not intend publicly ever to discuss the merits or otherwise of an English baccalaureate. But I believe we do have a responsibility to ensure that young people can build a career on qualifications which are world class."

There were clear criteria which, he believed, any English bac would have to meet. Would it:

* mean more young people staying in education?

* reduce testing?

* break down the academicvocational divide?

* be easy for young people to understand?

* gain widespread public confidence?

Urgency in clarifying and improving the current vocational pathways for 16 to 19-year-olds was an additional need, principals at the conference warned.

With the abolition of a clear track through foundation, intermediate and advanced GNVQs, the kind of young people who had previously succeeded along that route were now left stranded, said Nigel Robbins, principal of Cirencester college.

"Kids at 13 want to know what to choose at 14 and where it will lead. This needs to be dealt with urgently," he said.

Colleges were already ditching the new vocational A-levels in favour of a return to BTEC nationals because the new courses were too difficult for students, said James Hampton, principal of Yeovil college.

"Over the past five years a series of very good qualifications have been screwed-up by people who know nothing about them, who only have experience of A-levels. Whole groups of young people have been very badly served," he said.

Any 14 to 19 framework was likely to bring more under-16s into colleges, principals said. That would open the eyes of a wider range of young people - not only the disaffected - to vocational courses.

But a key issue for all students was likely to be compulsion versus choice, a question raised but not answered by Professor Tomlinson in his speech.

Even universities were now arguing that their student intake needed remedial education in some areas, Professor Tomlinson said. That suggested there should be some compulsory element of general education - communication, team-working - in any baccalaureate, as well as the possibility of relevant key skills as a supplementary study, for example statistics courses for students taking history or geography.

In the context of sixth-form colleges, Andrew Thomson, principal of Long Road, Cambridge, saw that as possible. "If people have to do things, then they will do them," he said.

But general FE college principals were more worried. "If we are shackled in an imposed curriculum, it will just shift the problems schools have into colleges," said James Hampton, from Yeovil.

"Pre-16 a lot of people are made to do things because they are good for them, and it has not been successful," said Fiona McMillan, principal of Bridgwater college. "It has meant that they are turned off and as a result they drop out altogether."

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