Abductions and UFOs: new exam will chart alien territory

5th June 2009 at 01:00
Exam board predicts 'massive' demand, but Tories fear 'soft skills' will push out traditional subjects

The first GCSE-level qualification in thinking is being introduced as the drive continues to encourage more teaching of the "soft skills" pupils need to succeed in life.

Thinking and Reasoning Skills, a level 2 qualification offered by the OCR exam board, includes teaching pupils to distinguish between an argument and a rant, and suggests discussing topics such as UFOs and alien abductions to help them weigh up evidence. It follows the board's popular A and AS-levels in critical thinking.

OCR says it predicts "massive" demand from schools for the course. But heads' leaders disagree, and the Conservatives, looking increasingly likely to form the next government, fear it could squeeze out essential subject content.

It comes as the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority this week began consulting on draft criteria for new functional skills qualifications in English, maths and ICT, designed to demonstrate that pupils have mastered basic working knowledge demanded by employers.

More explicit teaching of skills has already been included in both the new primary and secondary curriculums, and "thinking skills" qualifications have taken off rapidly in the post-16 sector.

Geoff Willis, chief examiner for the course, believes it will be even more popular because it includes elements such as problem solving and creative thinking, not included in the AS-level.

"I think the age group is also more appropriate," he said. "Because by the time pupils reach level 3 (post-16) you would have hoped they would have picked up these skills."

OCR is confident the qualification, to be piloted for two years from September, will count towards schools' league table positions. Mr Willis described it as a short-course GCSE in all but name.

John Dunford, Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, said only a minority of schools would be interested. "I don't think that schools are looking for this sort of GCSE-level course," he said. "It is the quality of grades, not the quantity of them that matters."

Nick Gibb, shadow schools minister, said he was concerned that teaching such skills could reduce the time for traditional subjects unless they were taught outside the school day.

"The problem with these skills-based subjects is that pupils can actually miss out on the basic subject knowledge that is particularly important pre-16," he said.

Ministers had originally planned to make A*-C grades at GCSE in English, maths and ICT dependent on a pass in the corresponding functional skills test. But the idea was dropped in April after Ofqual warned it would have caused technical problems and issues about fairness.

Functional skills will now be stand-alone tests, ready for teaching by 2010. But with new GCSEs expected to contain a strong element of such skills anyway, it is not clear what incentive there will be for schools to use them.

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