We'd be better off with a bac

15th August 2003 at 01:00
Should we replace GCSEs and A-levels with a more inclusive diploma needing less assessment?


Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours

The first report of Mike Tomlinson's working group on 14-19 reform signals the start of debate on an English Baccalaureate. But there is a danger that this is dominated by an unhelpful polarisation.

Our position is that we need decisive curriculum and qualifications reform to address important problems in 14-19 education: the way in which GCSEs can result in disaffection for those unlikely to gain five A*-C grades; the low status of vocational education and the problems of over-assessment associated with GCSEs and Curriculum 2000. We need to improve quality and relevance of learning for all pupils. We cannot afford an education system that effectively fails almost half the population by 16.

The aim of an English bac is not simply to funnel more young people into university, but also to improve vocational education so more 14 to 19-year-olds will become the highly-skilled workers our economy needs. To get to this point, a major challenge is to provide a curriculum and qualifications "climbing frame" from 14-plus to motivate more young people to continue learning, rather than dropping out.

Simply retaining GCSEs and A-levels will not address these problems. We do think it important, however, that a future English bac builds on the best aspects of both and also draws on respected qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) and BTEC diplomas.

We need to retain the subject breadth of GCSE for younger learners while allowing older ones the greater degree of choice and specialisation offered by A-levels. All 14 to 19-year-olds also need the types of learning, thinking and life skills covered in IB and BTEC programmes. We support Tomlinson's proposals for an inclusive system of diplomas from entry to advanced level to provide coherent and relevant programmes of study for all learners.

A system of diplomas of this type will not be easy to build, but we think it both necessary and possible. Its design will involve several delicate balances. First, it will be important to combine opportunities for learner choice with new requirements to achieve a minimum standard in maths, English, ICT and, we would suggest, a modern foreign language.

Second, it is important to combine both breadth and depth of study, particularly at advanced level. This will result in demanding learner programmes.

A third set of balances involves the flexibility to tailor study to meet individual learner needs while ensuring coherent learning programmes.

Learners would not have to take every level of diploma but could enter the system at 14 at a level appropriate to their needs and could progress at their own pace.

Finally, we need to balance assessment to safeguard standards and assessment to support learning without unduly burdening either teachers or learners. A grouped award, such as a diploma, does not require external assessment of each of its parts, thus avoiding a summer term dominated by exams.

Pursuing debates about "scrapping" A-levels and GCSEs will not help with the challenges we have outlined. What is needed is an informed discussion about how we can move forward in the next ten years. The potential prize is a high-quality education system that builds on the best of the past while creating something new and exciting for the future.

Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours lecture at the Institute of Education, University of London. Their book "Beyond A-levels: Curriculum 2000 and the Reform of 14-19 Qualifications" is published by Kogan Page.


Alan Smithers

CURRENT qualifications, however imperfect, embody the principle that beyond compulsory schooling students can shape their own studies. In 11 years of required education, young people will have become aware of their abilities and interests and will be seeking different directions. Hence what is needed post-16 is not a restrictive wrap-around, but good qualifications that work in their own terms.

Three main advantages are claimed for the bac, but none stands up to scrutiny. It is argued that it would broaden sixth-form studies. But it is possible to have awards which enable students to create their own kinds of breadth (or specialisation), whereas a bac imposes just one, a committee's view of what is desirable.

It is also suggested that a bac would improve parity of esteem between academic and vocational studies. But esteem has to be earned. The value of a qualification comes from what you can do with it. French bacs - and there is a range - have a distinct pecking order.

A third argument is that a bac would be inclusive and lead to more young people obtaining qualifications. But if the GCSE is done away with, the reverse is likely, since there would be no national end-of-school qualification. If the intention is to raise the school-leaving age to 18, then this should be openly debated and the truancy implications frankly addressed.

Bacs also have limitations. The A-level was introduced to recognise achievement in individual subjects precisely because its bac-style predecessor was denied to those who did not reach the prescribed level in all the parts.

Our system in which degrees are attained in just three years with few drop-outs depends on the platform of prior achievement. If students must engage in a broader range of activities, then inevitably they will not be able to get as far in any one, and university courses will have to be longer or standards lowered. There would have to be hard choices between fewer students, higher taxes... and higher fees.

Neither would the information the qualification provided to universities and employers be as useful as the present subject grades because the overall bac result would involve adding together disparate elements, masking particular strengths.

Our present system of post-school qualifications does need to be improved.

The good intention of Curriculum 2000 to offer the chance to study more subjects has come unstuck with the wholesale modularisation and the unsustainable assessment load. The obvious thing to do would be to have AS available for those who want a one-year qualification, but not force it on everyone. We also need employers to help devise better ladders from school into work.

It is opportunistic to suggest that a bac would remedy these defects. They would still need to be tackled, but there would also be a raft of issues to do with what to insist upon and how to combine the elements.

Where, for example, is the logic in compelling students to take the so-called key skills when they will already have completed 11 years of maths, English and computing?

The Tomlinson proposals are like the Millennium Dome in giving more attention to the cover than the constituents. But it is content that counts. Existing qualifications may carry emotional baggage, but they are tried and tested. Rather than a new grand design, we should concentrate on improving what we already have.

Professor Alan Smithers is director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Liverpool University

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