More state schools to offer baccalaureate

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Plans for a new A-level "supergrade" were unveiled yesterday as part of Tony Blair's radical reform of school exams.

The A* grade will be the "upper hurdle for brighter pupils to jump", education department officials said last night. It could be introduced in 2008.

The move was announced as the Prime Minister outlined his vision of the future of the education system, 10 years after his famous pledge to make "education, education and education" his top three priorities in government.

He also announced plans to encourage more state schools to offer the International Baccalaureate (IB), a more broad based exam in which students study six compulsory subjects to the age of 18 instead of three, as in A-levels. In addition, new specialist vocational diplomas will be offered in schools.

This choice of exams was being billed last night as Mr Blair's educational legacy to the nation. He told a conference of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust in Birmingham that he wanted every local authority to have at least one school or college offering the IB, and announced the Government would provide funding for up to 100 extra schools to offer it by 2010. At present, it is available in only 43 state schools.

"Do not misunderstand me," he said. "The majority of students will continue to do A-level and GCSEs but diplomas and, for some, IB offer new options."

Downing Street said it expected the number of sixth- formers taking the IB would still be only "in the low thousands" as a result of the pledge. But it was enough to prompt teachers' leaders to question whether the A-level remained the "gold standard" of the education system, as Mr Blair has claimed.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "In announcing support for the IB, is the Government suggesting the A-level system is no longer the gold standard?" Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, added: "We also question whether an A* grade will do anything to add breadth and challenge and will damage A-levels' standing as the gold standard."

The A* grade was one change to the exam system outlined by the Education Secretary Alan Johnson after the Prime Minister had spoken. Mr Johnson said A-level questions would be "more open-ended, requiring greater thought and more detailed written replies. This will give students the chance to shine and show their skills," he said.

University admission staff have complained that they cannot select the brightest students for oversubscribed courses because too many candidates present themselves with three straight A-grade passes.

But the Department For Education and Skills said the moves were not made to help universities "differentiate between the excellent goats and the even better goats". The changes were more about enhancing the A-level's reputation as the "gold standard" of the system, it said.

Education 10 years on

Prime Minister Tony Blair posted on his Downing Street website yesterday his own strategy unit's verdict on the past 10 years in education:

* Mr Blair said: primary school performance had risen, with an extra 100,000 11-year-olds having the mastery of English they need to succeed at secondary school.

WE SAY: there were real achievements but most of the progress was made during the Government's first three years in office. It has still not reached its target for 2002 of getting 80 per cent of pupils to reach the required standard in English tests, let alone the 85 per cent target for 2006.

* Mr Blair said: 25 per cent more young people now achieve five good A* to C grade GCSEs compared to 1997.

WE SAY: this is real progress but many schools have done it by encouraging pupils to take more vocational qualifications, deemed to be worth four GCSEs, and ignoring maths and English. More than 50 per cent of pupils fail to gain five top-grade passes if you include maths and English.

* Mr Blair said: 120,000 extra pupils have achieved considerably above the expected levels in national curriculum tests for 14-year-olds in maths.

WE SAY: this is not the most important measure of success for the subject. As The Independent revealed last week, one in four maths lessons in secondary schools is taken by a teacher not trained in the subject. The lessons are said to be of poorer quality, and many students are put off studying the subject beyond GCSE level.

* Mr Blair said: schools have greater resources, with capital investment showing an eightfold increase from £700,000-a-year in 1996 to £5bn this year to renovate Victorian buildings and build new schools.

WE SAY: this is one record the Government can feel justifiably proud of. Forcing children to endure Dickensian conditions in their classrooms - as was the case after years of under-investment before 1997 - sends out a message to them of the value we give to education.

* Mr Blair said: a persistent minority of schools continue to underperform and the percentage of pupils failing to achieve functional literacy and numeracy at 16 remains too high, hence the need for reforms.

WE SAY: this is a welcome touch of realism. But the reforms announced yesterday will not address the issue. They are aimed largely at the more academic end of the pupil cohort. More concentration on improving standards earlier in the educational cycle are more likely to eradicate this problem.

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