Back to basics in sixth form

14th November 1997 at 00:00
Schools may be ranked according to their sixth-formers' grasp of the 3Rs as ministers seek to rectify Britain's alarming record on basic skills.

National ratings for numeracy, literacy and computer skills are being prepared by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in a radical overhaul of the A-level points system.

The result could be a new set of national league tables, with schools given credit for basic skills as well as elite exams, The TES has learned.

In particular, the revamped tables would encourage schools to teach the general national vocational qualification - which is already designed to foster basic skills. This week an international survey found that Britain is one of the few countries in the developed world where young adults find it harder to understand newspapers than do 30 to 40-year-olds.

This year's performance tables are published next week. But UCAS, whose work is government-funded, has attacked the current league as "completely flawed".

Schools' scores in A-level league tables are based on a 30-year-old system which awards what UCAS says is a misleading number of points for each grade. An A-grade is worth 10-points, an E just two.

The UCAS proposals would bring AS-levels, GNVQs, Scottish Highers and the International Baccalaureate into the system. Points would be weighted to reflect the real value of each grade.

Tony Higgins, UCAS chief executive, said: "League tables using A-level points are completely flawed. Under the current system an A grade gets five times as many points as an E. In fact an A is 70 per cent while an E is 40 per cent - a far smaller gap."

UCAS officials also want to include students' key skills in the new points score. Numeracy, communication and computer skills are central to ministers' plans for reforming qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds.

A key skills measure could be the basis for the Government's proposed "overarching certificate", an umbrella award to cover all academic and vocational qualifications taken by 18-year-olds.

The current A-level points system was drawn up to give a rule-of-thumb guide to university entrance requirements, said Mr Higgins. "It's very crude and simple but it is being used as a very sophisticated measure.

"The thrust of this is that there would be points allocated for achievement in the basic qualifications, be it A-level, GNVQ or a mixture of both.

"There would be points allocated also for achievement of key skills."

The news comes as a TES survey showed top companies relying increasingly on A-level grades when choosing which graduates to recruit. Businesses are scrutinising points scores because the greater number of graduates means that a university degree is now no longer such proof of academic excellence.

The practice is particularly prevalent among accountancy firms where there is a correlation between performance at A-level and in professional exams.

Alan Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research at Brunel University, said that 30 years ago about 7 per cent of school-leavers went into higher education and 20 per cent of those got a first or upper-second class degree. Today a third of sixth-former s go to university and 50 per cent get a first or upper-second.

"Now there are a lot more people going into higher education employers have found the indicators they used like the class of degree no longer gives them discrimination," he said.

"They have to look back to A-levels which are a nationally recognised exam for that differentiation."

* A skills task force has been set up by the Education Secretary David Blunkett, as part of a "national assault" on skills shortages.

The group will comprise senior figures from industry and business, the training and enterprise councils, training bodies and trade unions.

Mr Blunkett told a Confederation of British Industry conference on employability in Birmingham this week: "Skills shortages have, for too long, been recognised but not dealt with.

"It is not enough to provide people with skills. It is also absolutely necessary to put people with the right skills into the right jobs. Employability must be combined with labour market flexibility."

The CBI warned that tuition fees for students could cause a severe skills shortage.

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