Leader: Sacred A level must step aside for smarter study

June 29, 2001

New education secretary Estelle Morris is right to order a quick review of AS levels and basic skills qualifications: Scotland's horrible experience last year showed how risky it is to ignore signs of possible trouble. She is less wise to rush out pronouncements on modern apprenticeships, vocational courses and school graduation certificates.

A quick fix for the AS level must not pre-empt the more thorough reform that has been hinted at. The GCSE is becoming irrelevant. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service's tariff for post-16 qualifications is evidence that arrangements are too complicated. It is no surprise that universities are finding it hard to specify entry requirements or that potential students are confused. The qualifications jungle is not helping to open paths to increased participation either after 16 or in higher education. For decades, a deep-seated fear of the rightwing press has frightened politicians off dethroning A levels in favour of baccalauréat -style qualifications. This has been repeatedly recommended, not least while Labour was in opposition, by the Institute for Public Policy Research (in the news this week for other reasons). A baccalauréat system could accommodate different combinations of subjects with greater or lesser vocational emphasis within a single structure. It could at last allow us to escape early specialisation and the pernicious division between academic and vocational "routes".

The sacrosanct status of the A level has been the stumbling block. Excuses for shelving reform have been twofold: the universities would not accept it without more money for longer courses: and "bog-standard" state schools could not staff a wider curriculum. In other words, we could not afford it. This was then dressed up in fine words about the A-level "gold standard" needed as an anchor while other changes were introduced. Now those changes are in place. We have a minutely calibrated system with national curriculum, league tables and regular testing. We have a government that is committed to investment in education and serious about improving the qualifications of the whole population. We have universities that long ago learnt they should not dictate to schools. The time is ripe for reform. The government should seize the day. Forget the universities: with funding tied to expansion, they will, as they always do, adapt more readily than they are given credit for. The priority should be a coherent and comprehensible terminal school qualification for all - then we can really celebrate school graduation days.

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