A level gold standard to tumble

November 24, 1995

Custodians of education's most sacred cow, the A level, have been mobilised to defend the "gold standard" against what they see as its deadliest rival - the overarching post-school qualification.

Tory backbenchers and pressure groups such as the Campaign for Real Education are leaning on ministers to dissuade them from sanctioning the creation of an advanced diploma or national certificate which would credit holders with a broad range of achievement, from A level to vocational study.

They are worried that the overarching award, an idea which has been floated by Sir Ron Dearing in the interim report on his review of qualifications for 16-19 year-olds, may be an educational "Trojan horse" out of which might emerge a series of A-level reforms.

But there are strong indications that the umbrella qualification has gained more cross-party support than it has opponents, and that the A level may soon be toppled from its position as the prime route into higher education.

Last week, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service revealed that it is working closely with Sir Ron Dearing's review on the development of a new single point score system for all qualifications used to enter higher education, including Advanced General National Vocational Qualifications, access courses, and even GNVQ "core skills" units, as well as A levels. According to Tony Higgins, UCAS chief executive, the new system "brings in the concept of a single overarching statement of achievement", apparently favoured by Sir Ron, and now included among the further education policy proposals of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats Bryan Davies, Labour's further and higher education spokesman, recently found himself under fire during questions at an Oxford and Cambridge Examinations Delegacy conference in London, after outlining the potential benefits of a reformed post-school qualifications system. Accusations came from the conference floor that he was attempting to set up a scheme which would lead to the abolition of A levels.

"All we are saying is that A level study needs to be broadened while we would like to upgrade vocational qualifications by encouraging students to study them alongside academic courses," he said.

Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, makes no bones about his party wishing to abolish the A level.

"Our argument is very straightforward and simple. If you maintain what we see as the two gold standards - the A level and the GNVQ - then you will never achieve parity of esteem between academic and vocational study, or a proper credit accumulation and transfer system. We would like to see an overarching qualification which could be made up of academic or vocational modules or units, which would each carry value," he said.

The arguments may seem logical while they remain just arguments, but people like Katie Ivens, vice chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, are not convinced that the umbrella award is a desirable or workable proposition.

"It is a nonsense to say that you can create parity of esteem. It may sound like a nice concept but really it's a diversion which is likely to lead to a dilution of standards," she said.

The supporters of this view may be in the minority, but they have politics on their side. While Conservative and Labour politicians may talk about overarching qualifications, they know it would be too much of a political risk to suggest tampering with the "gold standard".

David Robertson, head of policy development at Liverpool John Moores University and a Labour Party education consultant, commented: "If you look at what is happening in post-16 education and in higher education today it leads inexorably to the conclusion that there must be A-level reform. The problem is mustering enough political support to carry it out."

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