Doubt over grades for Bac

17th August 2007 at 01:00
Critics fear it could curb students' desire to aim high in the qualification

as teachers and pupils braced themselves for this week's results, it was claimed that proposals to introduce grading to the advanced Welsh Baccalaureate could act as a disincentive for students.

Meanwhile the introduction of the new super-grade A* for traditional A-level from 2010 is being viewed with scepticism in Wales.

The dilemma of whether to grade the bac a popular move with both parents and students came out as it emerged that the proportion of candidates passing the full diploma in Wales this year was 73 per cent three points down on 2006.

At present, candidates entered for the bac can only pass or fail the diploma, with a pass being equivalent to an A-grade A level. All students must pass at least two A-levels and the bac to achieve the diploma. Those who do not can be awarded the core certificate for obtaining six key skills and other parts of the bac core.

Last year, former education minister Jane Davidson said there was a legitimate case for introducing grades especially as external evaluators of the bac recommended in their report that it should "be an area of consideration" as the qualification is rolled out. But one year on there has been no decision, with Assembly government officials saying it is still up for discussion.

"Officials are working with the Welsh Joint Education Committee to address this complex issue," said an Assembly government spokesperson. "In considering potential for grading within the Welsh Baccalaureate, a number of issues including the possible impact of the introduction of an A* grade for GCE A levels will be taken into account."

Gareth Pierce, chief executive of the WJEC, confirmed that they had been involved in talks on the issue, but said the move towards grading presented "interesting problems".

"How do we compare grades, and with what?" he said. "Key skills are already taken at level 2 and level 3 in other vocational qualifications. This is not an easy one to call."

The commitment to a "broader-based baccalaureate incorporating vocational and academic opportunities" is key to the newly drafted coalition government One Wales document. The "sucking in" of England's specialist diplomas in September 2009 (one year later than over the border) will also broaden the bac as the two are married together.

Brian Lightman, headteacher of St Cyres School, Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan and vice-president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in Wales, is against the introduction of grades in the bac and the new A* grade.

"What would an E grade Welsh bac be worth?" he said. "It might mean that students concentrate on their main A-levels and just scrape a pass in the bac. This qualification is a demanding one and introducing grades could act as a disincentive. One way around it might be to award a distinction."

Caroline Morgan, Welsh Baccalaureate co-ordinator at Cardiff's St David's Catholic College, said it would be extremely difficult to grade the units within the bac.

"I would strongly advise against grading the full diploma as it would detract from the flexibility of the specification, which has been excellent in meeting the needs of all students across Wales," she said.

A total of 1,538 students were entered for the bac this summer, with 1,317 completing it. This year's drop-out rate of just 221 across 16 schools and colleges was well down on the 700 (half of all candidates entered) when results were first produced three years ago.

Many schools and colleges have already reported low offers from top British universities in recognition of the bac's merits.

Elsewhere, the proportion of A-level grades awarded to all candidates in Wales went up by 0.2 per cent to 24.1 per cent compared with 2006.

In England, over a quarter of candidates bagged the top grade for the first time in the exam's history this year. But, notably, in Wales the percentage of A-grades awarded in 16 out of 24 subjects including English, French and maths were down.

Professor David Reynolds, an education expert at Plymouth University but based in Wales, said: "Last year, overall A-E pass rates for A-level were up on England, but this year they are down. There just seems to be a slip in results.

"One of the most striking results is in languages, which are all down on last year including Welsh as a second language. This could be as a result of increased emphasis on maths and IT, which are doing better, especially in terms of the numbers taking maths this year."

The overall pass rate in Wales rose by 0.2 per cent, almost identical with over the border.

Girls once again outperformed boys with 52.3 per cent of subject entries for females gaining a grade B or better.

But the total number of entrants for A-level in 2007 was down by 1.3 per cent in Wales, leading Mr Pierce to remark that research was needed to find out what had caused the drop. He believed a move towards more vocational qualifications could be the cause. He also thought that fewer students taking four A-levels, possibly as a result of the Welsh baccalaureate, could account for the small percentage difference in A grades awarded in Wales compared with England.

The WJEC attributed this year's "generally high pass rates" to the rise of the AS exam in the first year of study, which had the advantage of highlighting students' strengths and weaknesses. Compared with 2006, there was an increase of 0.2 per cent in the AS level pass rate.

Education leaders are divided over whether A-level standards have declined as pass rates go up, with some saying that the introduction of A* grades would see independent and grammar schools out-performing candidates from state schools.

"I would hope universities will take into account what the student has to offer as an all-rounder, not just as an A* star pupil," said Mr Pierce. "Taking the bac should give students from Wales the edge."

Jane Hutt, Wales's education minister, said: "With the further roll out of the bac this September, there will be 9,000 new students in post-16 education. This qualification is increasing the employability and eligibility of our young people. All students and teachers in Wales should be congratulated for this year's excellent results."

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