Conor Ryan: Why we will be keeping A-levels

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The Independent Online

Next week, Ruth Kelly is expected to confirm that A-levels and GCSEs are here to stay.

Next week, Ruth Kelly is expected to confirm that A-levels and GCSEs are here to stay. Her White Paper on the education of 14- to 19-year-olds may dash Sir Mike Tomlinson's hopes for a new diploma, angering those who believe his proposals could revitalise secondary education. Many will feel that her decision owes more to politics than education, as the Tories say they too would keep A-levels.

But such rage would be misplaced. For Tomlinson ducked a fundamental issue: accepting his diploma would prevent his omission being rectified. Before Tomlinson, the main worry about A-levels was that students specialise too early, unlike their counterparts in other developed nations, Scotland included.

The previous A-level reforms - Curriculum 2000, and Sir Ron Dearing's report before that - tried to address the narrowness of sixth-form studies by encouraging students to take additional AS-levels and key skills. Though most students do take a fourth AS-level, their extra subject is usually in the same field as their main subjects. Hopes that a scientist might add German or an historian choose mathematics proved misplaced. Moreover, most schools dropped key skills.

The problem is the lack of compulsion. Students don't continue studying English and maths after GCSE, nor are they required to study at least one science subject or one humanities course. Universities don't properly credit extra studies, either.

Sir Mike addresses some of these issues. He proposes that no student be awarded an advanced qualification without at least a GCSE-standard grade C in practical maths, English and computing tests. He also proposes that all should complete an extended project, which could be multidisciplinary. But his diploma does not require broader A-level studies. One reason is that our traditional three-year degree courses are premised on students reaching A-level standard before embarking on them. The Government would not subsidise an extra year of study.

Some state and independent schools do things differently. They offer the International Baccalaureate, where sixth-formers take six subjects, three to A-level standard. They must study English, maths, a foreign language, a science and a humanities subject, though they can take two subjects in the latter three disciplines. British universities happily recognise this qualification.

The IB could not be imported wholesale into every British school or college. For one thing, the foreign-language requirement would put many off. We may lament the fact, but we can't ignore it. The more serious objection is that the IB is too difficult for many now taking A-levels. Schools that offer the IB insist that its students should first achieve five Bs at GCSE rather than five Cs.

This should not prevent a British Bac developing, where students would not specialise solely in science or humanities at 16. They would continue studying English and maths in the sixth form: having to achieve a GCSE in both subjects, as Tomlinson proposes, should not be the limit of our ambitions. And if the IB is too demanding, pass and honours options could be introduced.

It should even be possible to deal with the universities' principal objections. My Alma Mater, University College, Dublin, along with other Irish universities, still runs three-year degree courses for students, with a generalist leaving certificate. Many of their graduates are happily accepted for post-graduate study in Britain. If we are serious about tackling the real A-level problem, we can do the same here.

Next week's White Paper should focus on getting vocational education right: a big expansion of apprenticeships for 14- to 16-year-olds and more properly funded college-based courses will be key solutions. But nobody should worry if Kelly passes on the diploma. Whatever its merits in allowing better progress for GCSE students, they are insufficient to warrant the abandonment of A-levels. If electoral caution allows something better to emerge, that would be no bad thing for English education.

Conor Ryan is co-author of 'Excellence in Education: the Making of Great Schools' (David Fulton Publishers, £25)