Expert jury: How important are A-levels?

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Is there life without A-levels?

Tony Higgins Chief Executive, UCAS

A-levels can be a stepping stone to promising academic and business careers. Of course GNVQs and other vocational qualifications are no less valuable. Indeed, performance at A-level is a notoriously bad predictor of performance at degree level.

I would say to students, do not despair if your A-level grades are not what you had hoped. We have a student working in UCAS as a temp who wanted to do dentistry. She got an E and two Ns at A-level but that was not the end of the world. She went on to do an HND in Biology and got a distinction. From there she went on to her dental course and is starting her second year in October. Who says you can't do a demanding degree course like dentistry with only one A-level?

John Tate Director of Corporate Planning and Development at BTEC

The problem with A-levels is that they are over-valued relative to other qualifications. They have a cachet, but they do not adequately prepare the 70 per cent of youngsters who do not go into higher education. It is they we need to drive the economy.The gurus say that the only way the western industrial economy can survive is to have a highly skilled technological workforce. Unless we provide practical training for that 70 per cent, we will not get that workforce.

One of the crucial factors is that parents, in particular, undervalue the alternatives because all they know is A-levels. They think they are "appropriate", and vocational courses are "inappropriate" and somehow of lower quality. We need to get through to parents who are driving youngsters down the wrong track and convince them there is another way.

Anthony Tuckwell Headmaster of King Edward VI School, Chelmsford, which topped last year's combined A-level and GCSE results table

A-levels remain absolutely crucial, especially in terms of entry to university. However, it is not just about passing exams. Most employers would say that academic qualifications are not necessarily the best measure of potential, factors like character and personality are just as important. How we can develop attributes such as leadership and the ability to work with other individuals is therefore crucial.

The other activities we offer - such as sport, music, drama, Duke of Edinburgh awards, CCF - are absolutely crucial in making the pupil highly employable and also in forming fundamental personality traits such as honesty and integrity.

Irma Kurtz Cosmopolitan's agony aunt

The trouble with A-levels is that they come at an age when there is no such thing as a minor tragedy, everything is a major tragedy. Nothing can cause more anguish than exam failure.

All I would say to someone who has not done as well as they hoped is to offer them a dose of genuine philosophy. We're not all good at the same things and it is important to remember that today's tragedy will matter little tomorrow. It's something I told my son, who has talents in many other areas apart from exams. I also told him that the values of exams are set by conventional middle- class people and there are actually many other things that matter too. After three years no one gives a damn what you got, they never ask. Results are a bit of a middle-class badge really.

Sir Jimmy Saville DJ

I didn't get any qualifications. I left school at 14 during the war and went down the pits for seven-and-a-half years. Eventually, I decided there had to be another way of living, so I invented DJ-ing. I'm the only guy to stay on top of something they have invented which has been taken up by 90 million people worldwide.

Qualifications matter to the majority, but there are always a number of late starters. I'd tell the parents not to worry as long as they tell their kids the four "R"s: reading, riting, reckoning up and the difference between right and wrong. Send a kid out armed with those things and they'll end up like me - loaded when it matters.