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MPs broaden debate on A-level reform

Geraldine Hackett on an all-party report which hedges its academic and vocational bets. A new qualification that might pave the way to A-level reform is being proposed by the Commons select committee on education.

In its first report on 14 to 19 education and training, the all-party group of MPs this week suggests a new award for students who have done a broader course than the traditional two or three A-levels.

According to the chairman, Malcolm Thornton, there was agreement that A-level courses are too narrow for many students. The new course would have to gain the acceptance of university admissions officers and employers, but it would broaden the range of subjects studied post-16.

The report suggests the award could take several forms and it might be possible to include academic and vocational courses. For example, in the first year, a student could take four subjects - two AS-levels and two A-levels. In the final year, the student might complete the A-levels. Students would have to demonstrate that they had mastered "core" skills.

However, the MPS warn ministers against any hasty changes that would lead towards a single national qualification based on modular units.

In its report the select committee suggests any change needs to be gradual. In addition, the Government needs to assess whether modular courses are easier than the more traditional two-year linear courses.

During their inquiry, MPs were told that the significant "modularisation" of post-16 qualifications was worrying some in the profession. Until there is more evidence on which to draw, the committee believes the Government should take a cautious approach.

The MPs did not decide on the key issue of whether academic and vocational courses should lead to the same qualification or whether the two routes should remain distinctive and be assessed differently.

However, the select committee is in favour of the interim solution proposed by Sir Ron Dearing, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, that all existing qualifications be brought within a single national framework with each type of qualification awarded a separate certificate.

The report suggests that two-year AS-levels could be converted to one year, to increase the range of subjects studied. AS-level students would also have to have done courses that include core skills.

The committee is not in favour of the merger of the two advisory bodies, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority. It suggests the success of the merger of the Education and Employment departments should be assessed first.

In the interim, the report recommends a joint committee of the two organisations to oversee the development of advanced-level qualifications.

The report rejects the argument put to the inquiry by Sir Christopher Ball, director of learning at the Royal Society of Arts, that sixth forms are often too small. It says: "We do not believe that setting a nationwide minimum size limit on all sixth forms would be a sensible approach, and we reject that suggestion that school sixth forms be phased out."

The report also suggests the creation of careers forums involving schools, education authorities, universities, training and enterprise councils and businesses.

House of Commons education committee: Education and training for 14 to 19 year olds, volume one

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