Editor's comment

26th August 2005 at 01:00
Once the predictable rant from Middle England over record A-level results and ever-declining standards died down last week, it was business as usual.

University tutors braced themselves for the onslaught as tens of thousands of nearly-made-it students rushed to clearing.

Fortunately, the abiding media image is one of cheerful students delighting in their success. Many are still deciding whether to opt for work or higher education, but record pass rates of 96.2 per cent are cause for celebration regardless of where they end up.

However, every year there is also a huge army of students whose achievements go largely unsung. Four out of 10 new recruits to university will never have entered an A-level classroom - or will not have stayed long if they did. But it is they who make the Government's 50 per cent HE participation target reachable.

These undergraduates have taken BTecs, the Advanced Vocational Certificate in Education or Access to HE courses. Many will be adults seeking a second chance after failing at school, most of them aged 19 to early 20s.

Look at the Government figures for last year: 377,000 people began degree courses at university, of which 233,000 came via A-level studies and 147,000 via BTecs and other courses. This year, more than 100,000 university applicants will be from the BTec route. But where is the celebration? Where is the media hype? Why isn't Middle England up in arms about declining standards here? There is some criticism, largely in the form of attacks on so-called easy options such as media studies, civic studies and construction. But this could be applied equally to a number of "traditional" A-level courses.

There are two key reasons why the achievements of four in 10 students go unsung. First, the chattering classes only understand A-levels and dismiss other qualifications as second-rate. Second, there is no single day of celebration or lament for this stream. Students take the tests when they are ready and results trickle out from April to August. Photo opportunities being what they are, it is always easier for the media to get a handle on a single, less-confused package of achievements.

Yet BTec and other courses are the development ground for much of the innovation that reshaped A-levels. Ministers want modular courses, personalised learning, a credit framework where standards can be compared more reliably across the curriculum - and it is happening already in the vocational world.

So, next year, let us hear it for the unsung - mark out a day for real celebration of remarkable achievement.

Let us get the boring, silly diatribe over A-levels in perspective.

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