Nicholas Pyke reports on how Edexcel is making waves across the Mediterranean
They are choking on their coffee in the cafes of Istanbul, Nicosia and Stoke Newington. Turkish A-level is under threat and the entire Turkish-speaking world has mobilised.
The news that examination giant Edexcel wants to ditch the exam has led to banner headlines from northern Cyprus to north London, where the majority of Britain's 200,000 Turkish speakers live. Complaints have been raised by the Cypriot republic and the official Turkish consulate. Questions have been asked in the House of Commons. Even the mainstream press in Ankara has rumbled with concern.
For Turkish families the row goes well beyond a single, rather unpopular exam which, after all, attracts only 125 candidates a year. They believe that the qualification is a prop to their community identity, ensuring Turkish remains studied and spoken by their children. Out-of-school Turkish lessons are judged so important that, between them, the Turkish government and northern Cyprus supply teachers for 20 supplementary schools operating across the capital on Saturday and Sunday.
Andrew Love, Labour MP for Edmonton, north London, has taken up the cause in Parliament. "This issue goes to the heart of Turkish and Turkish Cypriot cultural identity," he says. "It is vital that the Turkish-speaking community is able to preserve its identity and traditional language is an essential part of that."
The Government's curriculum quango agrees. Chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, Dr Nicholas Tate, has already said that the exam boards have a "public duty" to run courses such as Turkish, Polish, Arabic and Hebrew, all of which are under threat. Last year he promised to knock heads together to ensure that the spread of subjects remains.
Heads are still knocking. The problem for the boards is that minority exams are both expensive and tricky to run. Edexcel, formerly known as the University of London exam board, wants to axe Turkish from 1999 complaining that it is very costly to run: pound;30,000 or so if the start-up costs are included (and all A-level courses are being re-written).
The three main exam conglomerates also say that increased concern about maintaining consistency of standards is a further consideration. Because Turkish is not for the most part taught in mainstream schools, the boards are left without a pool of professionally-qualified teachers to be examiners.
Edexcel also claims to have special difficulties, arguing that its 11 minority A-levels represent a disproportionately high number.
"We can't carry something like five times the number of small entry languages of other boards," says Gordon Tempest-Hay of Edexcel.
"Finance is one issue but it's not the only one. It's increasingly difficult to find people who are suitably qualified to be examiners and senior examiners. The assessment regime is now much stricter. We don't want to shirk our responsibilities. All we're saying is we want to share them more equally."