Leader: Sort out A-level mess then look towards reform

September 27, 2002

The unfortunate students caught up in the A-level fiasco might have known that there would be one last twist in their protracted ordeal by examination. The so-called guinea-pig generation has been first to try everything from national curriculum tests to AS levels, and now they may have a hand in the demise of A level itself. But would the much-heralded English Baccalaureate be any better than the "tarnished" gold standard?

After the disappointments of Curriculum 2000, it is tempting to believe that anything would be an improvement. Schools and colleges have lost confidence in the accuracy of grading, students are overwhelmed by the demands of constant examining and teenage studies have not been broadened as intended. Even the goal of making teenagers work harder will be lost if universities competing for the best students start making low offers based on AS levels, rendering the final year of secondary education redundant.

An English Bac would put some of this right. Breadth of study could become a requirement and the new version of AS level would be less onerous, freeing time for more extra-curricular activities and giving final examinations the pre-eminent status they deserve. Unlike the highly academic International Baccalaureate, it would include vocational options and even link with modern apprenticeships.

However, as Dylan Wiliam argues, the Bac would not address concerns about grading if it were simply grafted onto the current machinery of assessment. The results would be just as politically sensitive and no more reliable. Nor should higher education's support be taken for granted: the proposals bear a strong resemblance to the overarching diploma championed by the government, which most commentators expected universities to ignore in favour of subject-specific requirements.

The sensible way out of the current debacle is to separate the plight of the still unknown number of students who may have been wronged this summer from the longer-term issues about A level, even if that means further delay in structural reforms. Extra university places must be guaranteed, where necessary, without penalising next year's candidates. After that, the focus must be on producing a truly independent system that distinguishes more effectively between different levels of performance. That may mean a single examination board and it will require the involvement of universities in the design of any new system if it is to succeed.

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