John Dunford: We should celebrate these success stories

Students should be given credit for thinking about their long-term futures

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With the pass rate rising and the proportion of top grades increasing, the doomsayers emerge with the predictability of the first cuckoo in spring to complain that A-level standards are falling. Meanwhile, the 240,000 young people taking the examinations this year exhibit the range of emotions that any competitive exercise produces, but tinged with annoyance at the way in which the result of their two years' work is demeaned by some.

With A-levels tied in so closely to the university admissions process, important issues about higher education also surface at this time of year. The new card in the pack is student fees, threatening to burden bright youngsters with huge debts in their early twenties, and affecting not only their choice of course and university, but their whole attitude to higher education. As well as taking more vocationally oriented subjects at A-level, teenagers are looking more carefully at the employability record of graduates from the courses that they are considering.

With one eye on their financial situation and another on their job prospects, the university entrants of 2006 will become much more discriminating consumers of higher education than previous generations and universities will have to improve their teaching and pastoral care if they are to avoid some potentially difficult lawsuits.

With large fees looming over them, students this year will not just be seeking a place, but making absolutely sure they get on to the right course. A wrong choice could be very costly, both financially and in career terms.

Some may wonder if young people should be thinking so early of their employment prospects, but in fact they should be given credit for thinking more clearly about their long-term futures. The 18-year-olds of 2006 have worked incredibly hard for their results - much harder than previous generations. Contrary to some media perceptions, A-levels remain a difficult test, with less than 4 per cent of the 650,000 young people in the age group achieving three grade-A passes.

For bright 17-year-olds, the pressure is greater, with the results of all six unit examinations in each A-level subject being made available to university admissions tutors next year. Together with the forthcoming extended essay project (a compulsory mini-thesis designed to stretch A-level students' creative and thinking skills), this should give universities enough information on which to discriminate between the best candidates without introducing an A* grade, which would make grade A look and feel like second best.

The increases for chemistry and modern foreign languages A-level entries are welcome, but the fall in physics numbers suggests that there are problems still to be solved in the science curriculum. Although the substantial increase in the numbers taking mathematics A-level this year is a good example of what can happen when the Government establishes a committee of experts and acts on their recommendations.

It is regrettable that Charles Clarke's successor, Ruth Kelly, did not similarly follow the advice of her experts when she responded to Sir Mike Tomlinson's report on 14 to 19 qualifications by leaving GCSE and A-level out of the diploma system being created for vocational qualifications. For all their success this week, 18-year-olds study a narrower curriculum than their counterparts in other countries.

The proposed extended project will help broaden their studies, but the review of 14 to 19 planned for 2008 will need to bring A-levels into the diploma if we are to avoid a drift, which is already starting, towards the International Baccalaureate.

The IB is a challenging option, with a wider range of subjects studied and less freedom of choice of subjects. But it is not suitable for all 16-year-olds, particularly at the lower end of the A-level ability spectrum. The IB is costly too, especially if schools are also offering a wide range of A-levels and vocational courses. It is most likely to be adopted by independent and selective schools, with the accompanying danger of creating a two-tier system post-16. The Welsh have shown the way with their own baccalaureate. England is in danger of falling behind.

A-levels remain a highly credible qualification and the results are of life-changing significance for the students who take them. They are significant for the nation, and the Government, while maintaining public confidence in the existing system, needs to think how they might be part of a broader system after 2008. But for today, let us concentrate on celebrating the very real achievements of so many young people.

john.dunford@ascl.org.uk

The writer is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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