Is there a better way than A?

7th August 1998 at 01:00
Next week, more than a quarter of a million 18-year-olds will collect at least one A-level. Most will go on to university, as will a growing number obtaining vocational awards.

It is all a far cry from 1951 when only a privileged few achieved education's new "gold standard" and most left school with no qualifications at all. Since that time, A-levels have changed, some would say beyond recognition. No longer are able candidates failed simply because too many reach the pass mark.

New courses, and the introduction of coursework have increased motivation, while the decline in low-skilled jobs and changing attitudes among parents have brought a surge in staying on rates.

With three-quarters of 16-year olds now opting for further study, the demand for a high quality vocational alternative to A-level has seen the emergence of the new GNVQ.

Accompanying these changes, a fierce debate has been raging. The Government is planning cautious reforms which will preserve A-levels largely intact. In the second of our series of summer debates, Alan Smithers argues that we should retain the popular A-level, while Ann Hodgson, Ken Spours and Michael Young say it should be gradually replaced by an overarching certificate.A-LEVELS tend to get a bad press. People have been trying to talk them down for most of the 50 years of their existence. At first, this seemed to be because they were designed to pick out high-fliers, the top 5 per cent or so for university. Since, in these terms, most of us are "low-fliers", it is perhaps not surprising that they should have been called into question.

More recently, as higher education has expanded, the grounds of the attack have changed. It is suggested that A-levels are too narrow and create an artificial academic-vocational divide. Critics advocate some grouped or overarching award which, ironically, is what A-levels replaced.

But a cool look at the various charges suggests that they may have less to do with A-levels as such than the role of qualifications post-16, and that in most cases A-levels are a better bet than the alternatives.

Take differentiation, for example, providing the information that admission tutors and employers often require. If A-levels were scrapped, this would still be needed. Any opprobrium attached to A-levels in this respect would pass to their successor. But while A-levels are good at identifying academic ability (suggestions to the contrary are based on misinterpretations of correlation statistics)

a diffuse grouped award is likely to be less so.

Neither are A-levels necessarily narrow. They allow students to specialise or pursue breadth across a range of combinations according to their abilities and interests. Behind the arguments for a grouped award is the belief that breadth is so important that it should be compulsory. But what, in fact, are the advantages of studying, say, chemistry, economics, German and history imposed by a particular framework rather than some freely chosen combination?

The Baccalaureate idea involves unitising all existing qualifications, in the hope and expectation that A-levels will dissolve away. The experience of New Zealand, however, has been that fragmentation of this kind both increases bureaucracy and reduces coherence.

The qualifications structure beyond GCSE has to be flexible and based on choice. But it is important that this choice is exercised over meaningful chunks that bear some direct relation to the opportunities ahead. A-levels would seem to better serve this purpose than an amorphous grouped award made up of numerous bits and pieces.

But the main charge against A-levels is that they reinforce an arbitrary academic-vocational divide. It is claimed that an overarching award would promote "parity of esteem". But the value of a qualification is related to what you can do with it. Academic awards are not automatically accorded higher status than vocational ones. Medicine and law - vocational degrees - are more prestigious than their academic counterparts.

Advanced qualificatio ns in physics and mathematics carry higher status than those in leisure and tourism because they open more doors. Any difference in prestige is less to do with A-levels themselves than where they lead.

An overarching certificate might fudge the issue, but new status differences would soon emerge, as in France where there is a distinct pecking order for general, technological and professional Bacs.

A-levels are, in fact, more in tune with the organising principles of post-school studies. Sir Ron Dearing, in his report on qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds distinguished three: the academic, applied and occupational. The "academic" is centred on ways of making sense of the world, the "applied" on particular classes of practical activity and the "occupational" on specific training.

Representing these modes as different qualifications conveys more than running them together under one label. A range of awards does not imply tramlines. The

new AS examination has already paved the way

for flexible combinations of the academic and applied. An overarching certificate would be merely superfluous.

The Government has so far been commendably cautious in resisting the pressure. It is aware that the general public likes A-levels because they know where they are with them. The Government also recognises that employers are increasingly turning to A-levels instead of relying on degree classification s that they regard as somewhat suspect.

No doubt the siren voices for an overarching certificate will continue. But before doing away with A-levels the Government will need to be much more confident than it can be now that the balance of advantage lies elsewhere.

Alan Smithers is professor of policy research and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University and Sydney Jones professor of education-elect at the University of Liverpool

THE GOVERNMENT has taken the first steps towards reforming A-levels by proposing that all A-levels should be made up of two 3-unit AS qualification blocks. This is intended to encourage students to take broader advanced-level programmes of study (up to five subjects in the first year).

GNVQs are also being reformed into 6 and 3-unit awards to parallel developments in A-levels and there will be a common five-point grade scale for both qualifications. This potentially provides greater flexibility for students to take a mixture of academic and vocational qualifications at advanced level. Furthermore, all students will be encouraged to take a key skills qualification in communications, application of number and IT.

But this is just the start and we think that there is a strong case for further reform. Although the changes outlined above have the potential to address the narrowness of most student programmes and divisions between academic and vocational qualifications at advanced level - long-standing criticisms of the English post-16 qualifications system - on their own, they are unlikely to be enough. It would be disappointing if, after a decade of proposals for reforming advanced level qualifications, nothing had changed and the deep-seated problems of a low-performing, divided and narrow 16 to 19 qualifications system persisted.

It remains to be seen how schools and colleges will use the rather limited reforms so far proposed. They may well ignore them and continue to offer narrow A-level or GNVQ programmes, unless there are strong incentives for them to do otherwise. It is envisaged that the reforms arising from the Government's consultation process will be supported by incentives such as inspection criteria, funding regimes and a reformed Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tariff.

However, these may not be enough to alter post-16 provision in most schools and colleges. Our research suggests that institutions are most willing to change when there is a very clear sense of direction nationally, so that they can see their institutional plans in relation to the bigger picture for the future. There is, therefore, strong support among practitioners for an overarching certificate, because it represents a powerful and attainable future vision.

This is why we are in favour of the development of such a certificate. An overarching certificate, which constituted the basis of an advanced-level curriculum for all students, could provide a strong incentive for breadth and mixing of study post-16. It could bring about real improvements in advanced-level study. To get the award, students would have to show evidence of attainment in a broad range of key skills, there would be a minimum volume of required study and, with the right design, there would be a balance between breadth and depth of study.

Such a certificate would provide immediate benefits for A-level students, many of whom take only two A-levels. However, we also believe that an overarching certificate could strengthen vocational education. GNVQs are neither sufficientl y general nor sufficiently vocational. NVQs have been criticised for their narrowness and for not providing an adequate vocational preparation for 16 to 19-year-olds. An overarching certificate could allow students who want to specialise in a particular vocational area to do so, while still ensuring that they follow a broad general education. This would emulate practice elsewhere in Europe.

It would be vital that an overarching certificat e did not end up being another addition to the already complex post-16 qualifications system. It would need to have sufficient currency and rigour to replace both A-levels and GNVQs as the basis of an advanced-level curriculum for all students. This could be achieved over time.

Meanwhile, the planned qualification blocks could be developed within the framework provided by an overarching certificate. However, whether it achieved its objectives would depend not only on arriving at a design to fulfil these purposes, but also on the willingness of higher education institutions and employers to recognise the added value provided by an overarching certificate.

If the A-level, GNVQ and key skill proposals are the first step in reforming the advanced-level curriculum, we see the development of an overarching certificate as the next. However, changing deep-rooted attitudes about advanced-level qualifications will take time and any overarching certificate model will need to be capable of gradual evolution. Moreover, it will also need to be responsive to future economic and social demands, so that it can form a strong basis for successful lifelong learning.

Ann Hodgson, Ken Spours and Michael Young are academics at the Post-16 Education Centre, Institute of Education, University of London

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