Designing a Bac for the future

21st November 1997 at 00:00
Proposals for a Welsh Baccalaureate, offering a blend of academic and vocational elements, have been rejected. Clare Jenkins reports THEIDEA of a Welsh Baccalaureate may be popular in Wales, but the Government isn't impressed. Last month, it rejected plans to replace A-levels with a WelshBac, even though a study showed support for the qualification among more than 50 schools, colleges, universities, businesses and industries, and interest from educational institutions in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

According to John Osmond, director of the Institute for Welsh Affairs, which sponsored the study, the Government's "misguided" commitment to A-levels has blocked development of an overarching qualification that could provide a nationwide model. "A-levels were devised 50 years ago, when only 10 per cent of the cohort were going into the sixth form and only 3 per cent to university. Now we have 50 per cent going into sixth form and 30 per cent to university. We need a new approach," he says.

The Government thinks so, too. Its "Qualifying for Success" consultation document on the future of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds suggests a qualification similar to the French baccalaureat but insists on the retention of A-levels and GNVQs. Mr Osmond believes that the WelshBac, with its broadened curriculum and its twin academic and vocational routes, fits the bill.

"The Government thinks its aims can be achieved through simply elaborating on the A-level. We don't take that view. The baccalaureate could achieve everything they want," he says.

The institute's study, carried out with the British examinations board Edexcel, found 32 schools and colleges in Wales willing to pilot the WelshBac. Support also came from businesses attracted by the "parity of esteem" between academic and vocational qualifications.

In the study report, "The Welsh Baccalaureate - Matching International Standards", Professor Roy Lowe of Swansea University says, "It is not good enough, as we enter the 21st century, to see vocational courses as the poorer relations in the academic world at 18-plus." Professor Ian Cameron, of the University of Wales College of Medicine, agrees: "The move towards a broader education programme, the building of bridges between academic and vocational provision and the introduction of an international outlook are as important to this college as they obviously are to the authors of the WelshBac."

Mr Osmond comments, "The authors emphasise that the WelshBac is an evolutionary rather than revolutionary scheme, building on the existing A-level and GNVQ qualifications. We need an overarching qualification to inject key skills into every part of the curriculum, to make literate people numerate and numerate people literate."

The report's authors, John David and Colin Jenkins, condemn the A-level system as "deficient" as well as "distorting and frustrating efforts to provide non A-level students with the education they deserve and which the country needs". They blame the present system for the neglect of technology and technical skills, and of linguistic skills that would enable British students to study and work abroad. They condemn as "mythical" the belief that A-levels guarantee standards. "The challenge," they conclude, "is to raise educational expectations, standards and quality in Wales and to do so urgently."

The idea of the WelshBac sprang from the International Baccalaureate, which is being studied in more than 30 schools and further education colleges throughout Britain. One of these is Atlantic College, where Mr David used to teach and where Mr Jenkins is principal. He is also former director of examinations for the International Baccalaureate.

The IB was devised about 25 years ago in response to the growth of international schools and colleges and the resultant need for an internationally recognised qualification. Six subjects are studied, three at higher level and three at standard level. It is predominantly a pre-university course.

"The people who do well at it are those who are extremely well qualified and have a clear idea of their potential," says Professor Alan Smithers of Brunel University. "But I doubt it could be extended beyond the top 10 per cent of the ability range."

Mr Osmond agrees. "The IB is very academic. The WelshBac follows a different route and has a vocational side, so the curriculum is suitable for a range of pupils."

The WelshBac programme claims to provide breadth and balance through academic- vocational integration. The six subject groups comprise culture, language and literature; a second language; humanities; science, technology and mathematics; artaesthetics; and student choice. It also offers a theory of knowledge programme and a chance for community involvement.

Its authors say it "will provide a fuller, more motivating challenge to students. The breadth with depth of the baccalaureate approach would stretch the more able, while the elements of the WelshBac curriculum available to all students would give status to courses partly or completely vocational in character." As such, it would "bridge the divide between academic and vocational provision with the necessity of raising the status of the latter".

Herein lies its major difference from the IB. "Breadth of education is essential, not simply for the bright," says Mr David, a former headteacher at Radyr comprehensive school near Cardiff. "Our curriculum framework has a huge variety of choices. Instead of catering for 20 per cent of that age group, like the IB, we see it as being suitable for 80 per cent."

Professor Smithers agrees that post-16 education needs updating. "The weakness of the present system is that it imposes narrowness on students. I'd like to see opportunities for breadth across, say, five areas of study. I wouldn't specify them. As we're dealing with people who are free to leave school anyway, we should leave them free to choose their own combination of studies."

Mr David is adamant: "If it wasn't for the IB exam system being so expensive, because of being worldwide, we would have got our school to take it. But it still wouldn't have been as ideal as the WelshBac. I would still have wanted provision for those not going to university."

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