Confusion as the bac strikes back

20th June 1997 at 01:00
The bac is back under discussion. Last week the Government announced that the many expected changes to A-levels and vocational qualifications will be postponed while it considers broadening sixth-form studies. Again the baccalaureate has been thrust forward as the best, and broadest, highway to educational fulfilment.

Not that it is clear what this might involve. So many different versions are on offer that, when it comes to the bac, different people often mean different things.

The best-known is the French baccalaureat, a three-year course where candidates take written and oral exams in seven subjects at approximately AS-level standard.

Then there is the International Baccalaureate, a demanding qualification taken in a handful of British schools. Students have to cover three subjects at higher level, three subsidiary subjects, plus a theory of knowledge paper. Community work is thrown in for good measure.

Although well-established, neither of these models is taken as a suitable basis for a mass qualification in this country. The IB is fiendishly tough and appropriate for, at most, 10 per cent of students. The French baccalaureat has something of the academicvocational snobbery that the British planners are trying to escape.

The desire to bring A-level and vocational studies together has been a dominant theme on this side of the Channel. Here, the priority has been to launch a single, over-arching qualification.

In 1990 the Institute for Public Policy Research proposed a British bac with students picking subjects from three broad study areas. Last summer, these domains were echoed in Sir Ron Dearing's proposals for a National Diploma, asking students to pick subjects in four out of five subject areas (including maths and science; the arts; civics and modern languages).

In theory the diploma can be gained with both general national vocational qualifications and A-level certificates, bringing about a "mix and match" approach to study, and breaking down the academic vocational divide.

But the British bac and Sir Ron's approach are said to combine high prescription with the possibility of chaotic outcomes. What, asks Brunel University's Professor Alan Smithers, is the particular virtue of breadth if it emerges as a motley collection of, say, physics, sociology, German and history? Ken Spours, a post-16 expert from London University's Institute of Education says: "You can't graft French prescription on to the English system, which prizes flexibility".

He favours a baccalaureate model, currently before ministers, which was pioneered in Sweden. It involves "core skills" plus a free choice of other subjects totalling the equivalent of three A-levels.

This scheme also brings A-levels and GNVQs together, but students have much more choice and can achieve a coherent breadth that fits any walk of life.

The key difficulty with both approaches is the element of compulsion. It is notable that, without this element, Sir Ron's (optional) diploma is set to be a minority sport should it survive the current review.

Ken Spours says that to be workable, a new diploma must be mandatory and that universities must be compelled to use it as their main entrance criterion.

However, Alan Smithers argues that compulsion would be fatal. "A better option would be to look again at the Higginson proposals for five leaner, slightly smaller A-levels," he says. "If GNVQs were repackaged at the same size as A-levels, then people would be able to create their own breadth. If people are going to stay on in post-compulsory education, they really should be allowed to decide what they study."

TES june 20 1997 morris carpenter

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