Bac to the front of the framework debate

23rd May 2003 at 01:00
As the qualifications structures debate rages into its fifth decade, John Dunford believes change is on the agenda

THE BACCALAUREATE: a model for curriculum reform. Edited by Graham Phillips and Tim Pound. Kogan Page pound;22.50.

With the Tomlinson committee drawing up a new post-14 qualifications structure in England, this book is a timely contribution to an important debate. It fulfils its twin aims of evaluating existing baccalaureate models and setting out a case for reform. The book is a reminder that this is not a new debate.

Its historical perspective begins with the 1959 Crowther report and takes us through Q and F (qualifying and further), the CEE (certificate of extended education), N and F (normal and further), the CPVE (certificate of pre-vocational education), the "vertical" AS (advanced supplementary), the Higginson proposals for five "leaner, tougher" subjects, GNVQ (general national vocational qualifications), the British baccalaureate, the National Commission on Education's plan in Learning to Succeed, and Curriculum 2000. In addition to these landmarks, there have been since 1990 no fewer than 30 proposals from separate bodies for post-14 or post-16 reform.

This book draws out the common threads in many of these schemes and argues that they can best be woven together in a radical, holistic reform, which Mike Tomlinson has been challenged by the Government to produce in the next 12 months. The key advantages of the baccalaureate approach are seen to be breadth, coherence, inclusivity, progression and internationalism, none of which, it could be argued, exist in the present GCSE and A-level examinations.

The limitations of Curriculum 2000 are set out briefly by Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours in the final chapter, although for a full account one must turn to their simultaneously published volume Beyond A-levels. Curriculum 2000 has several important advantages too, but it is contrasted sharply in this book with the international baccalaureate (IB) and its French and Welsh equivalents (both versions). By comparison with our politically driven reforms of curriculum and assessment, the IB has remained stable and independent of government for the whole of its 30-year existence. Alas, it cannot be adopted in England, because it is not suitable for the whole ability range and is not available below advanced level or in vocational subjects. It is costly too.

The inclusive French bac is perhaps nearer to a structure that might work well in England, although we would not want the DfES to follow the example of the French ministry of education, which decides all syllabuses and sets all examination papers.

The book contains brief perspectives on the baccalaureate from business, colleges and the maintained and independent school sectors, as well as an account of the graduation certificate, which was never implemented. The framework for an English baccalaureate system is set out most clearly in the final chapter by Hodgson and Spours. The principles underpinning their proposals are inclusion, progression, secure standards, a combination of external and internal assessment and a unified framework at five levels - entry, foundation, intermediate, advanced 1 and advanced 2.

At each level, there is a general, a vocational and an occupational diploma, each having a prescribed core of learning with a high degree of choice outside the core. The core would comprise a specialist research study, taught elements such as critical thinking or theory of knowledge, and wider experiences such as sport or community service. Hodgson and Spours, who have a distinguished record of research in post-14 education over many years, argue for reform that, unlike Curriculum 2000, is consensual, less politicised and planned over a long time scale.

The problems of Curriculum 2000, and especially the A-level crisis of 2002, have radicalised the debate about qualifications in England, creating a climate in which the Government itself seems prepared to contemplate proposals its predecessors have avoided for four decades.

If we are to have a baccalaureate system of qualifications that will stand the test of time, as the IB has done, the critical issues are the extent of compulsion, the content of the core, the value added by the diploma over its component parts, and the assessment system that supports it. We must decide if we want a broad, balanced education for more young people up to 16, or even to 18. We must define what we mean by breadth much more clearly than has been done so far.

GCSEs and A-levels are stand-alone examinations, with no compulsion. In fact, they are not even qualifications, in the sense that they do not actually qualify the learner for anything. So we have a long way to go if we are to put into practice the authors' principles for a successful system. This well-edited bookis full of interesting information. For example, the pass rate in the French baccalaureate increased from 5 to 78 per cent between 1950 and 2001. Better still, in 2000, Singapore reduced the content of its school curriculum by 30 per cent. Surely that would be a reform worth fighting for in England.

This book is essential reading for all who want to contribute to the debate about the future of our qualifications structure. But above all, it is essential reading for members of the Tomlinson committee. It is encouraging that Ken Spours is one of them.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association.Beyond A-levels: curriculum 2000 and the reform of 14-19 qualifications, by Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours (Kogan Page pound;22.50)

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