Bac is best for Wales, says WJEC. Warwick Mansell, David Simmonds and Karen Thornton report
Plans for vocational diplomas in England should not deflect Wales from its own reforms for the 14-19 curriculum, the Welsh exams board said this week.
The diplomas are to be introduced from 2008, under government plans to address England's "scandalously" low post-16 staying-on rates.
However, union leaders, educationists and other bodies, including the Independent Schools Council, say the white paper response to the 18-month Tomlinson inquiry has missed an opportunity to put vocational and academic courses on an equal footing.
The inquiry's key recommendation, of an over-arching diploma covering all courses, was rejected. A-levels and GCSEs will continue alongside the new qualifications.
In Wales, the Welsh Baccalaureate, currently being piloted with 2,500 pupils, is made up of A-levels, GCSES and vocational qualifications, plus a "core" curriculum including work experience, community participation, and a language unit.
Gareth Pierce, chief executive of the Welsh Joint Education Committee, said: "It is essential that the proposals for England should not be allowed to deflect Wales from its own programme of 14-19 reform.
"It is therefore encouraging that none of the proposals for England cuts across the main threads of development in Wales, in particular the baccalaureate."
He welcomed the continued recognition in England of GCSEs and A-levels, and of the "value of an over-arching qualification".
But he added: "The baccalaureate pilot model takes this principle considerably further by embracing vocational and academic programmes at all levels, thereby providing a basis for a wholly integrated and inclusive approach to the 14-19 curriculum and its assessment."
Brian Rowlands, secretary of the Secondary Heads' Association Cymru, said:
"We hope in Wales we don't go along the same path of separating vocational and academic courses. We feel it's a step back and does nothing to overcome the undervaluing of vocational courses."
Anna Brychan, director of the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, said Wales should consider moving away from A-levels and GCSEs, as Tomlinson had proposed.
"We have an opportunity to do things differently in Wales. We could consider creating a new set of exams under the aegis of ACCAC (the Welsh assessment authority) which would fit into the Welsh bac but would not be GCSEs or A-levels.
"We would have to be sure that the same value and esteem attached to these qualifications, and that they were transportable (to other UK countries)."
But Geraint Davies, secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, was more cautious.
"We have got off to a good start, especially with the bac, but there is a long way to go. Funding is an issue, another is parity between vocational and academic routes.
"There is still, in our comprehensive schools, too much emphasis on academic routes post-14, and that bias can lead to disaffection among youngsters."
Project managers have admitted that schools piloting the bac are mainly offering only academic routes through the qualification.
However, Wales's 14-19 plans were this week praised by a member of the Tomlinson committee.
Professor David Raffe, of Edinburgh university, told delegates at the annual policy and research conference of Dysg (the Welsh arm of the Learning and Skills Development Agency):
"You have a process of reform which is not being led, as is the British tradition, by the qualification.
"It starts with the individual, building support and linking that to the opportunities that are available. It's more about how an individual should plan a route, what they need in terms of progression and development. The qualification comes later."