Time is ripe for A-level reform

The A-level is currently in a wobble. All the indications were before the election that a Labour government with a big majority would have a go at radical reform, broadening it to five subjects, injecting the skills employers have been demanding and possibly changing its name to "baccalaureate" to reflect the changes. That idea is now "off message".

Not that A-level reform would be easy. All examinations are notoriously difficult to tinker with. GCSE took well over a decade to cobble together and Nicholas Tate, head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is already talking of abolishing it.

A-level is even more complicated since its market is replete with stake-holders - parents, students, schools, universities, employers, the examination board industry and the leader writers of the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail.

At first sight any government intent on reform is in a strong position. It can make proposals, consult and act without even the need to legislate. If proposals are sensible, public opinion and even the press can be squared.

But the exercise will have powerful opponents - especially the community of university admissions tutors in traditional subjects who have a vested interest in the current narrow, specialised framework because it ensures that a large proportion of the students have already covered great swathes of the degree syllabus when they arrive. The government has powers to direct the shape of A-level; but it has no such powers over the decisions of university admissions tutors.

Reformers are also faced with long timescales. Careers teachers are today counselling 13 and 14-year-olds (who will leave school in 2002 and 2003) about the pattern of GCSEs and A-levels they should aim for if they are to get in to the university of their choice.

Nor is it simply a problem of young people's careers. If the pace and shape of the 14 to 18 paper chase is to change and A-level is to become a mixture of majors and minors - of A and AS levels -teachers, examiners and curriculum developers will need time to rethink, redesign courses and retrain. Reform will be a long slog for a two-term government.

It will also involve a lot of negotiation with the other powerful vested interest - the so-called "independent" schools. With increasing numbers of overseas students, many see their accountabilities as more international than parochial. Some of their brighter charges already do four or even five A-levels - a baccalaureate of sorts.

The objective of most of them is to maintain their proportion of top university places. If they did not like the look of of a broader A-level imposed by government upon examination boards, they could simply retain, with the covert agreement of the elite universities, a traditional A-level system of their own.

So perhaps the government is right to be cautious. Now new Labour has become the guardian of middle-class rights, A-level reform, like fees for higher education, could involve a whole succession of banana skins. There could be a case for letting a plurality of 18-plus qualifications emerge, with an element of government quality control but without any presuppositions about width or depth or "academic" content; while universities, already a diverse group of institutions, could be further encouraged to diversify the qualifications they use for entry.

What makes some shift from the dominance of A-level in its present form an urgent priority, are social, rather than educational, considerations. The current GCSEA-level route, still the norm in most of our schools, involves a curricular diet which is profoundly boring to, and often rejected by, many of the young people to whom it is offered.

Yet it is from among these disaffected youngsters that higher education will need to draw talent if, as Dearing has recommended, the participation rate is to be raised from 30 per cent to 40 per cent. Some of them will be happy to switch to "vocational" routes; but most of them need a more practical and less academic route which could be constructed within a reformed A-level. The French baccalaureate encompasses within the same title a range of different levels of achievement; our A-level, whether or not it is renamed, should do so too.

Christopher Price is a former university principal

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