Exam could give Welsh advantage

1st October 2004 at 01:00
Universities welcome the new bac but will still demand three A-levels. Felicity Waters reports

The Welsh baccalaureate could give pupils in Wales an advantage over English students when applying for university places - but only if they have three A-levels as well, according to some universities.

Admissions officers from universities across the UK came to Cardiff last week to hear what the Welsh bac diploma could offer them. Jane Davidson, minister for education and lifelong learning, told them the rounded curriculum offered by the Welsh bac would enable them to "differentiate between the brightest students".

But some universities still want the traditional three A-levels and say that key skills, which make up a core element of the bac, would not be a replacement for an extra A-level.

Sarah Dallas-Ross, admissions officer at St Andrews university, said that while they welcomed key skills as part of an application, a decision would ultimately "fall back on the standards of A-levels".

"Welsh students with three A-levels plus the bac's core skills could be seen to be at an advantage because they will have more points. But two A-levels with the core skills would be very narrow and we would find that difficult to accept."

Christine Todd, admissions officer at Plymouth university, said: "We would be happy to consider the Welsh bac as a qualification, but courses that would need three A-levels would still need three A-levels."

Keith Davies, Welsh bac project co-ordinator, said it was a problem that A-levels were being seen as an addition to the bac diploma, rather than part of it.

"The qualification offers an innovative approach to learning for all by focusing on formal and informal achievement, which will prepare students for higher education and the workplace.

"Most students will be offering three A-levels as part of the programme when applying for university, but those who have the bac with two good A-levels would also match anybody."

As part of the Welsh bac, students are expected to complete a work placement, develop modern language skills and work in the community as well as sit formal qualifications like A or AS-levels. Some of the students from the first cohort have been on business exchanges to America, completed parliamentary placements in London or trained as drugs-awareness tutors in their communities.

According to its supporters, the programme allows students to work "smarter rather than harder" and is already turning out a new breed of confident young people prepared for the world of work and higher education. It is currently being piloted in 31 schools and has had a warm welcome from many universities, particularly in Wales.

Ms Davidson said recognition was an understandable concern. "New qualifications, especially when they are innovative like the Welsh bac, are competing in a field where existing qualifications are well established and recognised," she said.

"Key skills are the ones that employers and higher education tell us they want. They want people who can communicate effectively, know how to use number skills, can make good use of IT and can work in teams."

Steve Minney, of Swansea university, was also upbeat about the qualification. "We are looking for students who are able to complete a course, and the skills needed for the bac gives us a good idea of what that person is about," he said.

David Horsburgh, of the key skills support programme, said recent research had stressed the value of key skills to higher education. With so many A-grade candidates now applying to university, institutions are increasingly looking at other key skills, such as communication, numeracy and team-working, he said.

Welsh bac student Hannah Jarvis, of St Cyres school in Penarth, wants to study journalism at university. As part of her course she is studying media studies, history and politics at A-level as well as the key skills components.

"It is hard work, but doing presentations in front of the class all the time has given us so much confidence. I've also been to Australia and spent a week in Alun Michael's office in Parliament as part of the course," she said.

Elin Ennis, a Welsh bac student at Builth Wells high school, Powys, believes the programme would give students a big advantage over other pupils with just A-levels to offer.

"You are gaining a qualification for everything that you do, in and out of school, and it makes you look at the wider world," she said.

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