Broader and broader still in post-16 education;FE Focus;Viewpoint;Opinion

GOVERNMENT proposals to reform A-level qualifications have had a less than ringing endorsement from professional associations in education. They have accused New Labour of "chickening out" on the issueof breadth.

On the other hand, the Government has been congratulated by Professor Alan Smithers of Brunel University for its "sureness of touch" in leaving A-levels well alone.

On closer analysis of a recent letter from education and employment minister Baroness Blackstone to Sir William Stubbs, chair of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, we suggest a different way of viewing government strategy on A-level qualifications.

Proposals in the letter - commenting on the QCA's recommendations following the consultation paper Qualifying for Success - can be seen as a preliminary step in enabling A-level programmes to be broadened.

Baroness Blackstone says not only are current programmes too narrow, but students also have less teacher-contact time than those in other European countries.

The proposed reforms include a new three-unit AS-level to be taken in one year and equivalent three-unit general national vocational qualifications (GNVQ), as well as the closer alignment of both qualifications in a common grading system.

Ministers say these reforms would let students study five subjects in the first year of the sixth form and make it easier to mix vocational and academic study.

At the same time, students will be encouraged to take the new key skills qualifications. These three measures are seen as helping broaden advanced-level study.

However, whether or not these opportunities are taken up after 2000 will depend on individual schools and colleges. They will not be compelled to offer the new AS or smaller GNVQs, or even the key skills, although Baroness Blackstone suggests there will be incentives to offer the latter. They include extra cash, inclusion in inspection schedules and recognition for admission points for entry to university.

Initial feedback from schools and colleges suggests that their response to the new three-unit AS and GNVQ blocks will be uneven. Some see the proposals as offering opportunities for broader study, while others are likely to wait for the response of HE admission tutors.

However, the immediate issue is whether funding reforms will make it attractive to timetable five-subject programmes and key skills. This was raised in The TES (April 16) by the Joint Associations' Curriculum Group.

A concern which has yet to be raised in the press is that of increasing advanced-level participation, achievement and progression. There are three specific proposals in the Government's announcement which could have a negative effect on successful completion, achievement and progression rates:l limiting the chance to resit modules; * increasing the amount ofexternal assessment in GNVQs;

* limiting study time to two years.

The number of students who successfully complete advanced GNVQs in two years is getting lower. However, completion rates rise significantly when students are allowed an extra year. Moreover, it is unclear how the new three-unit AS qualification will overcome the problems of student transition from GCSE to A-level. There are, therefore, strong arguments for a new "intermediate" level between GCSE and A-level.

The Government's proposals are not good news for national education and training targets, nor for a more inclusive post-16 system. New Labour's desire to be seen publicly "maintaining A-level standards", appears to be at the cost of wider access to advanced-level study. If Labour wants the system to be more efficient and more accessible, ministers must rethink the three proposals.

If the Government is really serious about its proposals, it must provide financial incentives for schools and colleges to use the new three-unit blocks as a basis for broadening their advanced-level programmes.

Ministers must press universities to give credit for this broad approach when selecting students for entry to all types of HE. They must also pay as much attention to promoting access to advanced-level study as they do to maintaining A-level standards.

And they should give greater encouragement to the development work on unitisation and overarching certification and ask the QCA to explore the possibilities of a new intermediate level.

This would help create a more flexible qualifications framework and achieve the Government's aims of broadening the curriculum, increasing the number of students with key skills and encouraging the mixing of general and vocational study.

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