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That old gold standard

As we enter the examination season, the perennial question of what to do about A-levels is raising its head again. There are those, of course, who believe that there is nothing wrong with A-levels. They represent the one fixed point of quality in a horribly shifting educational universe.

But in fact there are some real problems with the examination - demonstrated by the fact that the issues it raises simply will not go away. As the years pass, it becomes harder and harder to stick to the "gold standard" which was invented for a small elite of specialist students.

This is not to argue for a reduction in standards or rigour. If anything, a reformed 18-plus examination should be more rigorous, testing young people on a much wider range of subjects than the current three or four. Is it really acceptable that the average History or English graduate almost certainly has no maths qualification above GCSE? Or, conversely, that science or maths graduates may have studied virtually no literature beyond their GCSE set books?

This is, of course, not a new thought. It is nearly a decade since Professor Higginson produced his report on A levels, arguing that the norm should become five, not three, subjects - with "leaner" but "tougher" syllabuses. The then Education Secretary, Kenneth Baker, afraid that he would be accused of being soft on standards if the content of A levels was reduced, rejected Higginson's conclusions, and attempted to beef up the status of AS levels in order to give the required breadth.

But this compromise never really worked. Universities remained sceptical about the value of AS levels, and some schools, instead of seeing them as a genuine free-standing qualification, encouraged students to sit an AS level after one year of advanced study in the same subject in which they would eventually take A levels.

This loss of the whole notion of a much broader-based school-leaving examination at 18 has been widely regretted, not only by teachers (including many independent school heads), but by employers too. They are increasingly looking for flexible employees with a wide range of skills and knowledge - both general and vocational - who can keep on learning as work circumstances change.

The current limited nature of A levels has led to a desperate search for high-quality vocational qualifications which would be related what employers want but also achieve high standards and therefore status. But the Level 3 GNVQ, or "vocational A level," as we reveal this week on page 3, is described as lacking purpose, and having failed in its goals. The researcher who has documented this sorry state of affairs has called for an immediate review.

So the stage is set for a root and branch consideration of the 14 to 19 curriculum, in spite of Sir Ron Dearing's valiant efforts to square a number of circles by recommending fresh combinations of A-levels and AS-levels. Maybe the French have got it right; with some judicious fudging, they have extended the baccalaureate to include a range of vocational options while more or less retaining its high status.

This sleight-of-hand means that they may well achieve their aim of getting 80 per cent of the 18 plus age group through the Bac by 2000 - a goal we will be far from achieving. David Blunkett would do well to look across the channel for inspiration.

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