Reforms creep closer for A-level

25th November 1994 at 00:00
Ministers appear to be softening their stance on A-levels and have signalled a new willingness to consider reforming the 30-year-old university entrance exam.

Any changes before the next general election would be small, as reform is not on the agenda. Education minister Tim Boswell has suggested, however, that there could be room for flexibility on the question of assessed coursework. This is the vexed question that has split the traditionalists and progressives.

In a speech to the Sixth-Form Colleges' Association (APVIC) last week, he called for hard evidence from those who wanted reforms.

But he warned that their case was not helped by the "megaphone diplomacy" of those out to destroy the best of the old system.

Within the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority criteria there was provision for coursework and for modular courses, some of which were very successful, he said.

" If people want to alter aspects of that code and alter the amount of assessed coursework, it is not for me to gainsay that," he added. But he called for "a gradualist approach" and proper debate.

A step forward might be through a reformed AS-level. Mr Boswell admitted that the Government was concerned that AS-level had not worked as comprehensively as was hoped. "We are asking SCAA to look at it."

Ministers are known to be concerned, too, that the Government has argued itself into an ideological corner over the limits on assessed coursework. Renewed emphasis on the "sudden-death" end-of-course exam came from John Major in what was seen as an irrational lurch to the Right three years ago.

Since then, little educational evidence has emerged to support his demands.

Rather, a strong reform lobby has emerged, including most leading figures from industry and six organisations representing the heads of most schools and colleges in the state and private sectors. APVIC is one of the six.

The Labour party is close to stealing the initiative away from the Tories since Tony Blair's call to broaden A-levels rather than abolish them, and to have a modular structure linking them to the new vocational qualifications.

There appears to be very little political distance between his views and those expressed by the six groups.

They called in a joint paper last month for a fully modular framework, uniting A-levels, National Vocational Qualifications and General National Vocational Qualifications. With choices including exams and continual assessment, the market would determine the fate of traditional A-levels.

Mr Boswell came under tremendous pressure to sanction the reforms when he addressed the principals.

He would only say that he and the Education Secretary, Gillian Shephard, had studied the document and would receive a delegation.

But in the new language of compromise that has developed since the departure of John Patten as Education Secretary, the minister signalled what many saw as a willingness to be more flexible.

"There is absolutely no Government commitment to the three GCE A-level model for all full-time students in sixth forms and colleges - quite the reverse, " he said. "GNVQs and NVQs now provide scope for much greater flexibility to mix and match qualifications of different kinds."

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