We're backing the bac

New English vocational exams could test strength of Welsh independence. Nicola Porter reports

England's vocational diploma could be foisted on Wales under pressure from employers, a new think tank report predicts.

It suggests Wales will be pressured to accept the new diplomas, or develop close equivalents, to protect the position of Welsh learners in the UK qualifications market.

But Wales is two years into a pilot of its own over-arching post-16 qualification, the Welsh baccalaureate. And defiant officials, teacher unions and opposition Assembly members this week jumped to its defence.

In the first investigation of its kind, the Institute for Public Policy Research looked into the effects of political devolution on education and health policy in the home countries.

David Raffe, of Edinburgh university, found that the Welsh and Scottish refusal to accept English policies had paved the way for radical new ideas in education. But he concluded that constraints on divergence may affect Wales more than Northern Ireland, and particular education policy areas such as qualifications more than school organisation.

"The Welsh baccalaureate was designed as an over-arching certificate, which incorporates A-levels rather than replaces them, partly to protect the position of Welsh students in the UK university and job markets," he wrote.

"The vocational diplomas, to be introduced in England, may provide a critical test of devolution. Wales will be under pressure from employers and labour-market interests to accept the new diplomas, or to develop equivalents."

England plans to introduce work-related diplomas in three years if they are given the green light by employers. They formed the centrepiece of February's 14-19 white paper, published in response to last year's Tomlinson report. Tomlinson proposed an over-arching diploma incorporating both vocational and academic qualifications, and called for the phasing out of A-levels and GCSEs - proposals rejected by the English Education Secretary Ruth Kelly.

In contrast, the bac is made up of A-levels, GCSEs andor vocational qualifications, plus a core curriculum including work experience and a language unit.

Geraint Davies, secretary of teaching union the NASUWT Cymru, said Wales should stand its ground against attempts to undermine the pilot qualification's success and content.

Jeff Cuthbert, Labour Assembly member for Caerphilly, agreed developments in England had to be closely monitored and Welsh learners should never be left at a disadvantage compared to their English peers. But he stood firm that the qualification should stay "uniquely Welsh".

Linda Badham, assistant chief executive for 14-19 at ACCAC, the Welsh qualifications, curriculum and assessment authority, said discussions were already taking place about how new vocational qualifications might be used in Wales, but that there was no reason for the bac to be dropped.

An Assenbly government spokesman said: "Existing and any new vocational qualifications will form an important part of the bac as it develops. There is nothing in the development of vocational diplomas which cuts across what we are doing on the bac."

news 9 Devolution In Practice 2006: Public Policy Differences Within the UK, IPPR, tel: 020 7470 6100

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