Diplomas: just a sticking plaster for A-level reform

16th May 2008 at 01:00
"When troubles come, they come not single spies, but in battalions

"When troubles come, they come not single spies, but in battalions." Forgive the slight misquote - in Hamlet, Shakespeare actually wrote "sorrows" - but "troubles" seems to have stuck in the popular imagination.

It also better fits my subject: the Government's latest attempt to solve the problem of 16-plus assessment with the new over-arching diplomas. One can't help but notice that these are encountering more than their fair share of troubles at the moment - and we are only several months before the teaching on them actually starts.

Jerry Jarvis certainly thinks there are problems and, as head of the Edexcel exam board, he's in a position to know. Last month, he voiced a series of concerns, mainly of a practical nature, which he feels could result in up to 40,000 students being left with (his words) "worthless qualifications".

He was quickly echoed by many of the teachers charged with bringing the new diploma into being. While supporting it in principle, large numbers said they felt insufficiently prepared to actually start teaching it.

Though they may loom large now, it could be argued that these are logistical details that will be ironed out in due course. After all, a few weeks ago, it seemed that UK air transport was in meltdown, but Terminal 5 seems to be running smoothly enough now.

Surely the real issue for the diploma, though, is whether it is worth having. In an interview with The Guardian, Mr Jarvis touched upon this, too: "If the diploma doesn't earn its spurs as a qualification - and that means respect from employers, pupils, parents and higher education - we face a serious problem. There is a huge educational risk to this country."

We have, of course, been here before. Several times. A-levels first made their appearance back in 1951, when 37,000 candidates sat them. There was no question at the time that these were elite qualifications, geared around university entrance and aimed at only 5 per cent of 18-year- olds.

By the late 1960s, when I was taking my A-levels, there were already calls for significant changes, principally to broaden the curriculum. There was also recognition of the need to devise a more unified system to embrace practical and vocational subjects as well as the academic and theoretical.

Demand for reform continued sporadically through the 1970s and 1980s, culminating in the Higginson Report of 1988. Professor Higginson's recommendations that the traditional A-level programme be broadened to embrace five subjects was instantly handbagged by Margaret Thatcher.

A decade later came Curriculum 2000, which did allow for some minor expansion of subjects, but did nothing to bridge the academic-vocational divide. Once again, the Government - by now Labour - ran scared of the electorate's supposed devotion to the "purity" of A-levels.

Five years further down the line and some other poor sap was asked to sacrifice two years of his life to conduct a "thoroughgoing review" of 16- plus qualifications. To nobody's surprise, Sir Mike Tomlinson said we should scrap A-levels, broaden the curriculum and unite the practical and the theoretical in a single qualifications framework.

Of this, the Government acted on only the last four words. Step up, the new diplomas. Somehow these are meant to both retain existing GCSEs and A- levels and supersede them. And they will do this by being so successful that A-levels just wither away.

Now it may be possible that some people believe this. Presumably they also believe that Santa Claus will reverse the decline in house prices and the tooth fairy solve the credit crunch. In the real world, the indications are that it will be otherwise. Already, many at the so-called top end of the education market are gearing up to ignore the new diplomas altogether. Now they have their cherry on the top in the form of the new A* A-level grade, they are quite happy with things as they are.

So, instead of being a qualification for all, the danger is that the diploma will become yet another CPVE, GNVQ or Btec qualification, labelled as equal but widely seen as inferior to the so-called gold standard of A- levels.

And then, no doubt, some other poor soul whose surname may or may not end in "son" will be charged with conducting a "root and branch" review of the 16-plus assessment framework.

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