Will we get our own `Bac'?

The A-level has served us well for nearly 50 years; but calls are growing to introduce a broader exam, and the evidence is compelling.
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Much of the opposition in the past decade to reforming A-levels has come from those in power who themselves took A-levels, did well by them, and see no reason why others should not do the same. Tamper with this "gold standard" (a favourite Thatcher phrase) of the education system, they argue, and the whole edifice will come tumbling down.

But in the new, post-Conservative climate, this is an argument fast losing currency. A-levels do not, in any case, much resemble the exams they started out as in 1951; they have undergone significant structural change, and many more people now take them - one in three of the age cohort, as opposed to one in 30 when A-levels began. The complaint that A-levels are too narrow and force specialisation at too early an age, setting us at odds with all our counterparts in Europe, is louder and increasingly hard to stifle. Has the time come, then, to abandon the A-level and replace it with a broader, Continental-style baccalaureate?

The A-level was first brought in to replace the Higher School Certificate - ironically, a "baccalaureate" of sorts, in modern parlance - in which students had to pass a compulsory mix of subjects. In 1951, 35,000 people took 100,000 A-level subjects, compared with 635,000 subject entries in 1985 and 740,000 in 1996.

In the 1980s, coursework began to be introduced as a component of A-level. Over the past decade, the idea of subject cores - where syllabus content is more closely prescribed - has become more widespread. The past five years or so have seen the development of the modular A-level (where students are examined module by module, rather than in one final examination at the end of two years); despite the initial - and inevitable - cries of falling standards, the modular A-level looks now to be in the ascendant.

In 1988, the Higginson Report gave voice to mounting concerns about the narrowness of A-levels, suggesting instead a programme of five, slimline A-levels across the arts and sciences. This, however, was quashed by the Thatcher administration.

Today, there is a growing consensus among educationists, industry, and some universities that greater breadth is the only way forward. But there is still a reluctance to throw away an exam model that has served, on the whole, very well for more than 40 years. Although the new government has promised to "broaden" A-levels, David Blunkett, the Education Secretary, is believed to be cautious about ditching A-levels altogether.

A survey by the Confederation of British Industry in 1995 found that while A-levels were considered by employers to be good predictors of study skills, intellectual ability, numeracy, written and analytical skills, 67 per cent of respondents did not believe A-levels provided a sufficiently broad education for work, particularly in terms of teamwork ability and communication skills.

"A-levels now attract far too many people who then fail them," says Dr Michael Young, head of the post 16 centre at the Institute of Education in London. "They are narrow in the sense that our students, unlike their Continental colleagues, give up science, or languages, or maths, or humanities, which is no longer appropriate in terms of their likely future, when they will need to be more adaptable.

"You get people now desperately trying to make subjects like physics more attractive - but that can never succeed, because the real problem is the A-level structure, which allows students to give it up."

In his review last year, Sir Ron Dearing proposed that the sixth-form curriculum should be broadened by encouraging students to take five A- S exams, equivalent to the first year of an A-level course and contributing to a new advanced diploma, before deciding which two or three subjects to pursue to A-level.

These changes, due to have been introduced in September 1998, have now been postponed by the Government for a year, giving rise to keen speculation that ministers are considering more radical plans for a British baccalaureate. Models of the baccalaureate approach abound in Europe, including three different types in France, the German abitur, and the International Baccalaureate (see inset) which is offered by a small number of schools in this country.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, is in no doubt that a new baccalaureate for all students, encompassing academic and vocational study, is what is required. "The Dearing report suffered from one serious flaw, and that was that he failed to make the advanced diploma compulsory. This means there is no guarantee that universities and employers will see it as a qualification comparable with A-levels. We would not have moved forward at all."

A growing number of university vice-chancellors are known to support the idea of a broader sixth-form education, while most admissions tutors would much prefer to stick with the system they know. Heads of department could also resist changes, says Sir John Daniel, vice-chancellor of the Open University, because they have grown used to students arriving with a highly specialised knowledge of, say, physics or chemistry, and would not wish this diluted. Critics of change also argue that a new baccalaureate could necessitate extending university degree courses from three to four years.

A new exam like this would be hugely expensive, in terms of preparing teachers and syllabuses, as well as in the extra teaching hours required. George Turnbull, at the Associated Examinations Board, is cautious about the introduction of too much change too soon, emphasising that it would take the Government much longer than a year to get a new system in place.

Both Michael Young, and John Dunford, past president of the Secondary Heads Association, would like to see the gradual introduction, over the next five years, of a flexible system combining academic and vocational routes, where students would take different modules towards an advanced diploma. The Dearing proposals, they say, could be an initial step in this direction, giving universities time to get acclimatised.

John Marks, director of the Educational Research Trust, however, still insists that the A-level structure should be kept intact, with the possible addition of an intermediate exam after one year in five subjects. But he and others like him seem to be fighting a rearguard battle. For the next millennium, A-levels must, and will, changen