Ministers yesterday accepted wide-ranging reforms of exams for pupils after the age of 16 put forward in a report heralded as the biggest shake-up for 40 years. The report from Sir Ron Dearing aims to bridge the gap between academic and vocational qualifications by creating a new national diploma for students starting courses in September next year.
A new Advanced Subsidiary exam to be taken after one year in the sixth form would encourage students to study up to five subjects. And both A- levels and advanced vocational qualifications (GNVQs) would become tougher. The latter would be renamed Applied A-levels.
Sir Ron said: "How shall we achieve the aim of bringing academic and vocational pathways together? There is only one way and that is by their intrinsic quality: by making them first class."
Teachers and politicians welcomed Sir Ron's report. Gillian Shephard, Secretary of State for Education and Employment, said: "We need a wide range of rigorous and high quality qualifications. Only in this way can we build a well educated and highly skilled adult population for the 21st century."
David Blunkett, Labour's education and employment spokesman, told the Commons: "It is time to set aside the prejudice that has been in place for far too long against those who are prepared to soil their hands by working in industry and commerce."
David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "It is absolutely vital that GNVQs have equivalence with A-levels, otherwise the existing two-tier system will be perpetuated. Changing the name will not of itself give parity of esteem but, combined with more rigorous vocational awards, it will be a major step in the right direction."
He added, however, that the new diploma would not ensure that everyone studied a broad range of subjects because it was not compulsory. Independent and state school heads in the Joint Association's Curriculum Group welcomed the new Advanced Subsidiary exam and the introduction of key skills but said they did not support the national diploma. "Members are uncertain how attractive it will be to learners. Qualifications must also have a currency with employers and higher education. Only time will tell if that is the case," a spokesman said.
University vice-chancellors backed the review's support for broader sixth- form education but warned that there were practical obstacles to the proposal for bright sixth formers to take units of university courses.
Doug McAvoy, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "I regret that Sir Ron has had to bow to the A-level gold standards lobby and has not been able to achieve greater integration of A-levels with other subjects."
Education, page 19
The main recommendations
A new National Diploma for students with two A-Levels, an applied A-Level (formerly known as GNVQ) or an equivalent job-related qualification. Diploma students must take "key skills" - communication, number and information technology.
A new intermediate exam so students can study four or five subjects in the lower sixth before choosing which three A-Levels to take.
The lowest-achieving 20 per cent of 14-year-olds will have the chance to do work-based courses in further education colleges while remaining on their school's roll.
High-fliers will be able to take revised Special Papers and to study for units of degree courses while still at school. They will also be offered a revamped General Studies A-level.
Easier A-Levels in the arts and humanities will be made tougher so the same number of high grades are awarded in all subjects and by all exam boards.
Vocational A-Levels will be reformed to improve their status with universities, and external examiners will be appointed.
Youth training will be relaunched as a system of National Traineeships run jointly by employers and colleges. These will lead on to Modern Apprenticeships, job-based training which can lead to university entrance.
View from a college: A principal and three students react to the report
David Kelly, principal at Palmer's College in Grays, Essex.
We specialise too early in this country. I don't think there is anyone in the sector who isn't worried about the drop-out rate from A- Level. I would endorse the idea of intermediate exams. My concern is about parity of esteem between vocational and academic education. If you are going to let the students transfer to college at 14 you should also allow the high-fliers to enjoy the range of subjects a sixth-form college can offer, such as psychology or a range of languages. Then you might have a chance of delivering. If you only let out the pupils the schools want to get rid of, you will increase the divide between vocational and academic education even further.
Jordan Cotter, 17, is taking A-Levels in history, PE and human biology.
A few boys at my school finished their GCSE courses and didn't take any exams, and a lot of others didn't pass any.
I think letting them go to college is a good idea - it seems pointless doing two years' work for nothing.
I don't think you can even up the different A-level subjects. People say humanities are an easy option.
They tell me PE is and easy A-level but in the last two years I have had to study six different areas in depth. That's quite hard.
Sandra Simmons, 18, is studying for A-Levels in English, maths and psychology.
Some people are better off doing work training. A friend of mine didn't like the work we were doing at school and was asked to leave so he went and got a job as a mechanic. Now he's matured a lot and is doing really well. At our college we already do extra courses as well as our A-Levels. A lot of the coursework comes in the second year so to make up the time you do something that will interest you. I did a GCSE in photography and a word-processing course. It gives you the chance to take up new interests.
EMILY DOWLING, 18, is studying for A-levels in English, Psychology and Politics.
"I think they should make it easier for people to go back to school. Both my mum and dad went back to get Maths GCSE. When they thought about it they thought they wouldn't be able to do it because they would have to learn with 16-year-olds. It was a hard decision. The assumption is that you don't get colleges with older people in. Also, they had to pay for it. My dad left school at 14. If the government wants to encourage people like him to go back into education, they should make it free."
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies