Lifelines will be lost without college A-levels

15th September 2006 at 01:00
I believe that A-levels are the wrong exam for the 21st-century. We need qualifications that integrate academic and vocational subjects.

But, having said that, while A-levels remain the post-16 qualification, they should be on offer in all education institutions - schools, sixth-form colleges and FE colleges - to give students throughout England equal access to gaining the skills they need to get jobs and operate successfully in today's world.

The Learning and Skills Council and the Association of Colleges deny that A-levels are disappearing from FE, but it is almost certainly happening.

More than half the A-levels sat in England are taken at FE colleges. In rural areas, it is often the only place where over-19s can study them. If that provision disappears, many adults would be robbed of a vital second chance to improve their prospects.

And what about younger students? Many of them choose to study at a college rather than at school for reasons ranging from a convenient location, greater subject choice, a different learning environment, to being unable to get into a school sixth form. Cutting A-levels from FE would severely restrict their options.

The Government and the LSC constantly talk about the need for young people to have greater choice. But removing A-levels from colleges would have an immediate, detrimental impact on over-19s and younger students.

Disparity in results does not justify the cuts since recent reports (Nuffield Foundation July 2006 - Making sense of 14-19 policy development in England and Wales) show there is little evidence of difference in results due to the institution attended.

The Government says that colleges should concentrate on the 16 to 18-year-olds who do not have a qualification at level 2 (GCSE equivalent) and on literacy and numeracy skills for older people.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers recognises the need to provide vocational skills. But it believes that axing A-levels and making heavy cuts in adult education will damage the mission to provide lifelong learning to their local communities.

In an era when there is still no parity of esteem between academic and vocational subjects, colleges without A-levels or adult education could quickly become second-class institutions. They would also lose experienced lecturers with invaluable expertise in science, maths and languages.

If there is genuine duplication of courses on offer, reduction in provision must be managed.

At Cambridge Regional College, AS-level students were stranded when it abolished its courses without warning. If other FE colleges follow, schools and sixth-form colleges will find it hard to cope with the sudden arrival of unplanned students.

The Government, LSC and colleges are all blaming each other. But someone has to get a grip before a generation finds itself in an educational void.

Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers

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