But England seems to have been left behind. The Curriculum 2000 reform of A-levels, which introduced the idea of studying key skills as well as AS-levels, has not achieved its aim. Few students genuinely broaden their study, and research has suggested the AS has made teaching more didactic and superficial. In summer 2002, A-levels attracted an unprecedented bad press, when exam boards were accused of manipulating results. The "gold standard" award - which has been around for 50 years - lost some of its shine. Meanwhile, truancy levels among 15 and 16-year-olds are rising and around half of 16-year-olds risk being labelled as failures after missing out on C grades at GCSE. To tackle these issues, a working group led by former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson has proposed a baccalaureate-style diploma. But how would it work? What effect would it have on life in schools? And are the plans any good?
What is the diploma?
The proposal is to rationalise GCSE, AS and A-levels, and streamline the complex raft of more than 5,000 vocational qualifications by establishing a high-level diploma. There will be four levels: entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced. The entry level will provide basic practical and life skills; the foundation will be roughly equivalent to GCSE grades D to G; the intermediate to higher grade GCSEs; the advanced to A-level. But it will not be linked to specific age groups, nor will pupils have to tick off the diplomas in succession. So students can skip lower levels, or take more time over higher ones.
It has been dubbed a "baccalaureate" because it draws on elements of European systems structured around compulsory core subjects with a single, multi-level award that acts as a school-leaving certificate and entrance to higher education. A-levels have been renowned for their depth of study, whereas baccalaureate systems have greater breadth. Like a baccalaureate, some subjects in the English diploma will be compulsory, but there will be opportunities for specialisation to prepare for university or employment.
"We're suggesting fundamental reform; no more tinkering," says Dr Ken Spours, a member of the Tomlinson working group, who has been undertaking long-term research on14-19 education with Dr Ann Hodgson at London University's Institute of Education. "This is an ambitious proposal. It will bring together the best elements of A-levels and traditional vocational qualifications."
How will it work?
All levels will have the same basic three-part structure of "core", "main learning" and "common skills". The core will be compulsory and will include English, maths and ICT, but the emphasis will be on "practical" skills such as numeracy and communication rather than unravelling the mysteries of quadratic equations. Students will put together their main learning programmes drawing on existing curriculum structures. So, for example, a would-be engineer will be able to choose a package of science options and extra maths. "Common skills" covers areas such as self-awareness and interpersonal skills, and will be demonstrated through voluntary work or work experience and extra-curricular activities such as music, drama and sport. Pupils under 16 will continue to follow the statutory curriculum, with some elements going towards their diploma.
Coursework will be replaced by an extended research project, which should be a sound preparation for a job or university place. The end product will not have to be a bundle of closely-typed A4: pupils may make a video or artefact, demonstrate some experimental science or put on a performance.
After each diploma, students will receive a "transcript" listing their achievements.
Teacher assessment is a key part of the plans, with accreditation for a student's routine work in lessons instead of external assessment, and more use of e-assessment. Although there will still be some exams, students can take these when they are ready, so creating mixed-age classes (with brighter pupils moving more quickly through school) and relieving the summer term exam pressure.
A radical shake-up of the exam boards will create a single body to award the diploma. The grading system will be recalibrated to remove the sense of failure that dogs the lower GCSE grades; Tomlinson also recommends incorporating the new Advanced Extension awards (dubbed the world-class tests), into the advanced level diploma to stretch the brightest pupils.
Although, initially, it seemed core subjects would be compulsory at all levels, the Tomlinson task force now wants to retain the principle of choice at sixth form. So, unlike the European diplomas, students will probably need to study English and maths only to intermediate (or GCSE equivalent) level to be awarded the advanced diploma. Then they will be able to opt for an "open" diploma mixing science, arts, humanities and vocational subjects or a more specialist diploma focusing on a particular career.
What differentiates the diploma is the plan to include vocational training, which could start at 14. Agriculture, horticulture and animal care, retailing and commercial enterprise, and arts, media and publishing are among the 20 vocational pathways proposed.
All the specialised vocational diplomas will include a substantial period of structured and accredited work placement; some could lead to in-work training such as modern apprenticeships. The aim is to tackle the divide between academic and vocational qualifications. The diplomas will avoid the hierarchy where some subjects are valued above others, and the status and quality of vocational training should be improved.
When will all this happen?
Dr Spours says the ideas haven't come out of the blue. "But now their time has come, it won't happen overnight." The Tomlinson task force will make its final report this summer or early autumn, but sees the proposed changes as "evolutionary", suggesting the diploma is phased in over the next five to 10 years. Even after the final report, a further six months of consultation will precede any decisions. And because the diploma's introduction requires so much time and investment, broad bipartisan political support will be vital.
But some changes may be forced through quickly to hold the fort while the diploma is in development. The AS-level, currently a compulsory staging-post to A-level, could soon be made voluntary to ease the exam burden on students and staff. The Tomlinson working group has also suggested adding two A-level grades at the top of the range, so universities and employers can more easily identify the brightest students.
Other ideas may emerge from a pound;16 million DfES project testing out a variety of 14-19 proposals, including personalised learning paths, vocational partnerships with the private sector and more flexible curriculums.
Why is the "bac" better?
The intention is to create a more flexible and attractive range of options.
Thirty per cent of pupils currently leave school at 16, one of the highest drop-out rates in Europe: the diploma is designed to boost the success rate of those unsuited to the rigidities of the current system. It should also reduce the burden on exams and create a more coherent structure.
A-levels are also criticised for making it difficult for universities and employers to identify the best students. The diploma will have a more detailed grading system, as well as more information on achievement in key skills and extra-curricular activities.
And the drawbacks?
Some critics say the diploma is not radical enough - unlike the International Baccalaureate, for example, it doesn't insist on a compulsory foreign language or science element - and see it as an opportunity lost.
Others claim it is just a reshaping of the old school certificate with the same disadvantage; that anyone failing any one element will not receive accreditation in the overall diploma. There is also concern that the system may be too complicated, and that fast-tracking bright students may mean too many immature 16-year-olds signing on as university freshers.
The current structure of secondary schools also does not lend itself to mixed-age classes. "Imagine the organisation involved," says one head, "of a Year 7 pupil doing maths with Year 9, English with Year 8! And what will happen in 11-16 schools?" Some also claim the bac may be less flexible than it appears. "Currently, students can choose from an array of options," says Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Liverpool. "This diploma imposes a committee view of breadth and will make it difficult for students to pursue their own strengths."
The complex infrastructure of schools, colleges and training providers may also struggle to support a single 14-19 learning phase. Structural reform, perhaps to deliver the diploma through an expanded system of sixth-form colleges, will not come cheap.
Reactions have mostly been positive. Independent schools - which were initially sceptical - university vice-chancellors, and headteachers have all welcomed the changes. Teaching unions, too, are cautiously optimistic.
But it is the response of admissions tutors in "selecting" universities which will be crucial. Employers seem less convinced. The Confederation of British Industry and the Institute of Directors have both been critical.
Although they like the focus on vocational training, they say accrediting non-academic activities will not help employers pick the people they want, and the change will cause disruption and distract from raising standards.
The Welsh example
The first pupils from 18 pilot schools will take the Welsh bac this summer.
Since September 2003 they have been studying core subjects (including Welsh life, preparation for employment, personal and social education and European awareness) four to five hours a week, with a further 18 to 20 hours of options at various levels. Many of the pilot schools offer the bac alongside traditional AS and A-level routes (see case study).
Initial responses are positive. "It offers real choice and greater scope," says Huw Cripps, deputy head of Cardinal Newman RC comprehensive in Pontypridd. "For some pupils it is more appropriate than trying to squeeze in lots of AS-levels." He is pleased with the way Year 12 pupils build confidence and achievement through the key skills package, which includes work experience, community work and Young Enterprise.
With a 14-plus foundation level Welsh bac in development, many schools are looking to extend the diploma to key stage 4 and integrate it into key stage 3, using the bac as "a spine through the school", says Mr Cripps. At the other end of the scale, universities and FE colleges have accepted the advanced level bac as the equivalent of an A grade at A-level.
The international example
The International Baccalaureate (IB) was created in 1968 by educators, parents and business people at the International School of Geneva to develop "inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect". It is now offered in more than 1,300 schools in 116 countries. IB students have to take one subject from each of six subject groups (first language, a second language, experimental science, mathscomputer science, the arts, and individuals and societies. So even if a student wants to be a doctor, he or she must study a language and an arts subject. There is also a 4,000-word essay, a "theory of knowledge" course and 150 hours of "creativity, action and service" which might be voluntary or community work or extra-curricular projects. It has an emphasis on oral skills and a strong academic reputation.
In the UK it is often assumed that only private schools adopt the IB, but internationally, 55 per cent of IB students are from state-funded schools.
Austin Patterson is assistant headteacher and IB co-ordinator at Broadgreen high school in Liverpool, an inner-city state school where the IB ran parallel with A-levels from 1992 to 1999 - after which A-levels were ditched. "The IB is of immense benefit. It's a broad, balanced and tough course that produces rounded people," he says. "It's flexible, so it suits those who haven't made up their minds what they want for the future, as well as those who want to pursue particular strengths."
Anyone failing to achieve the full diploma still gets accreditation for elements completed, and many employers respect the IB's high standards.
Universities also seem to like it: 78 UK university admissions tutors surveyed by the International Baccalaureate Organisation in October 2003 rated it higher than A-levels. Broadgreen is watching the development of the English bac-style qualification with interest, but Mr Patterson says:
"It would have to be very good to beat the IB."
Jennifer Slater, principal of Northallerton College and a member of the Tomlinson working group on 14-19 reform, leads Towards an English Baccalaureate?, a seminar at next weekend's annual conference of the Secondary Heads Association (see www.sha.org.uk for a conference programme)