Conor Ryan: Is it time to replace A-levels with the Bac?

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The Independent Online

Exam time is always nerve-racking. Not just for the students poring over GCSE French or AS-level Maths. It can shatter the nerves of exam-board chiefs and ministers too. This year, the police were called to prevent a private tutorial college cheating. We had a "cheating epidemic" after 270 reported incidents last year (though only 11 schools were found guilty). There were the usual timetable clashes and badly set questions. And thousands of pupils got the wrong history paper.

Not surprisingly, Estelle Morris wants the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), which regulates the exam boards, to put its house in order. But the Secretary of State for Education faces a tougher time fending off the growing army of pundits who channel their own parental angst into demands for an end to exams. She argued in a Social Market Foundation speech on Monday that tests were essential both for accountability and to measure standards. However, there are different debates to be had in primary and secondary schools. And the serial incompetence of some exam boards shouldn't be allowed to contaminate the whole concept of externally marked testing.

The key-stage tests were first attacked when they were introduced in 1995. More recently, long-standing opponents of the literacy hour at Durham University used a small sample of 11-year-olds to conclude that despite better test results, reading has not improved, though children are better at maths. Right-wing critics quote them to scorn Labour's claims of improved literacy. The Welsh have scrapped the teacher-assessed tests at seven. And the anti-testing brigade thinks that it is on a roll.

But the critics were wrong then and are wrong now. Testing and league tables have shaken primary schools from their complacency. Since 1997, inner-city schools in Tower Hamlets and Birmingham improved much faster than the national average. Had improvement simply reflected "grade inflation", it would have been uniform.

That's not all. Ofsted inspectors report significantly better teaching standards thanks to the literacy hour. Independent observers from abroad agree. Furthermore, David Blunkett opened the testing system to the scrutiny of Opposition-nominated headteachers two years ago. They gave it a clean bill of health. Testing may have its flaws but it remains the only objective measure of primary-school achievement.

Nobody seriously argues against secondary-school exams. But the National Association of Head Teachers wants GCSEs to go, while others would scrap AS-levels. And more than 40 schools already offer the International Baccalaureate instead of A-levels. Some schools already sit national tests at the end of Year 8 rather than Year 9. This could become more common. Yet unless ministers are prepared to start full apprenticeships at 14, the GCSE seems likely to remain. Moreover it is too early to change the AS/A2 model, given last year's problems with Curriculum 2000. Indeed, ministers would be wise to take QCA advice to drop the super A grade for the moment too.

However, the Government should consider introducing a Baccalaureate in the longer term, where students would take a genuinely broad and demanding range of six subjects while having time for volunteering, sports and the arts too. David Miliband, the new School Standards Minister, is an enthusiast. The Baccalaureate has its problems, including what to offer those for whom it is too demanding. But that shouldn't stop ministers considering its more coherent approach. It could be an attractive manifesto pledge at the next general election.

One reform is more urgent. Five years ago, Labour reduced the number of exam boards to three to stop the "shopping around" culture where some schools sought the easiest papers. The harmful competition between syllabuses may have been reduced. But the scale of recent problems has made the case for a single English board unanswerable.

It would be cruelly irresponsible to pretend to youngsters that life does not involve any stress or competition. Tests and exams are part of life, whether set nationally or by schools. However, a single board could restore much-needed confidence in the system. And that might at least make exam time less stressful for teachers, if not for students and their parents.

The writer was David Blunkett's political adviser from 1993 to 2001

education@independent.co.uk

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