Drop A-levels to broaden area of study, says inquiry

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The Independent Online

Plans for a new baccalaureate-style certificate with compulsory sixth-form studies in key subject areas such as maths and English will be unveiled later this month. The proposals form part of the most radical shake-up to the secondary school exam system for more than 50 years.

Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools charged by the Government with heading an inquiry into education for 14- to 19-year-olds, will put the case for a three-tier "baccalaureate" to replace the existing GCSE, AS and A-level system in a consultation paper to be published next week.

The first tier of the certificate - the "intermediate" stage - could replace GCSEs while the higher certificate would replace A-levels.

Mr Tomlinson wants academics and headteachers to consider compulsory sixth-form studies in key subject areas such as maths and foreign languages. This will mean a sea-change in thinking for sixth-form studies because most pupils still specialise in subject areas, despite the introduction of AS levels to bring more breadth to sixth-form studies in the past two years.

However, the interim report will make it clear that the biggest question ministers will have to answer is whether existing exams have to be scrapped to make way for the new system. Another method of introducing it would allow the three separate exams to continue,counting towards a baccalaureate-style certificate.

Mr Tomlinson has indicated support for the more radical option of telling heads and college principals that to do otherwise would mean the new system was in danger of becoming just a "fig cover" for the old.

He acknowledges that it may be necessary to retain separate exams for mature students (say a 61-year-old) who may want to study just one subject for a specific qualification, rather than make them take the baccalaureate for which youngsters have to study six separate subjects to qualify.

Mr Tomlinson said programmes of study under the new system would include three key areas:

* General education or compulsory studies - the key skills of English, maths, IT and science so often demanded by employers and said to be lacking in many of today's university graduates;

* Specialist learning - the equivalent of today's A-levels or a vocational qualification, such as engineering, tourism or health care;

* Supplementary learning, in support of specialist learning. If a student is studying geography, for example, there could be a case for studying statistics as well.

Mr Tomlinson also wants youngsters to be given credit for extra-curricular activities, such as sports, drama or voluntary work in the community. Under the International Baccalaureate system, students follow five compulsory areas of study: maths; English (or home language); a modern foreign language; science; humanities (history or geography); and a sixth area of their choice. They also have to write an essay of 4,000 words and clock up 150 hours of community, sports or creative activities.

The interim report gives teachers' unions and academics until mid-October to respond to its ideas. A final report from the committee is expected by the end of the year. The inquiry is also looking into claims that pupils are over-tested and is expected to outline the case for reducing the importance of GCSEs so that only those leaving school at 16 would take them.

The rest would have a "progress check" on their performance in different subject areas, which could be internally marked rather than externally tested. The shake-up will be the biggest since A-levels replaced the old matriculation system in the early 1950s.

Mr Tomlinson was asked by Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for Education, to head the inquiry after handling the investigation into last year's A-level grading fiasco, which led to hundreds of students having their results upgraded due toa lack of clarity over marking standards.

Baccalaureate 'beyond resources of the state'

By Richard Garner

A-levels will be disappearing for ever from the timetable of one of Britain's leading independent schools within the next three years.

Indeed, this autumn only three sixth-formers will be standing against the tide at Sevenoaks School in Kent - and starting A-level courses rather than opting for the International Baccalaureate.

As a foretaste of the kind of curriculum that is likely to come for state schools with the Government's education review for 14 to 19-year-olds, there is probably no better example.

Staff at Sevenoaks believe that the compulsory element of the IB curriculum will be the biggest upheaval for UK state schools to cope with - assuming ministers back the idea of an English-style baccalaureate.

There are five compulsory subjects and a voluntary one. Each sixth-former has to study maths, English, a foreign language, a humanities subject (such as history or geography) and a science. Three have to be studied to higher level and three to standard level.

In addition, they have to write two essays - one on theory of knowledge and an extended essay amounting to 4,000 words. They also have to clock up 150 hours of "cas" work (creativity, action, service) during their two years in the sixth form. Creativity can include taking part in a drama production, action includes sport, and service is voluntary activities - such as, at Sevenoaks, the Combined Cadet Force or voluntary work in the community.

John Guyatt, deputy master at Sevenoaks, is sceptical over whether the state system could adopt the International Baccalaureate without massive implications for the allocation of resources.

"Would they have enough maths teachers to deal with everyone learning maths?" he asked. "Also, modern languages is a compulsory element of the IB and they have just dropped languages from the national curriculum [as a compulsory element for 14 to 16-year-olds]."