As independent schools consider moving to IALevels, is the National Bacc the answer to an increasingly fragmented exam system?

Janet Downs's picture
Eton College has made the move. So has The Perse School. Away from A levels to IALevels – advanced level exams designed for the international market.

And more independent schools will follow according to the Telegraph. The Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference said IALevels offered stability at a time of change and uncertainty.

It could be a shrewd move – the proposed A levels are being implemented hurriedly. There appears to be no trialling, evaluation or gradual implementation. IALevels are flexible – pupils can take AS-level exams after one year and A2 in the following year. These combine to form an overall A-level result. Or schools can choose whether pupils sit exams after two years.

Reformed A levels, on the other hand, split AS level from A level and are examined at the end of the course. There is little, if any, coursework. Cambridge University claimed scrapping AS levels would “harm English pupils” earlier this year.

But there are risks. Universities are contributing towards the new A levels. They are hardly likely, therefore, to say they are inferior to alternatives. At the same time, Universities might not accept IALevels. UCAS says iALevels have equivalent value and “may be accepted” in lieu of UK A levels. But that word “may” implies a level of doubt.

So what possible alternatives are there to A levels? They include:

1Cambridge Pre-U is already available for pupils wishing to enter university. As well as the traditional two-year course, there are one-year short courses and a Global Perspectives and Research option which extends pupils’ learning.

2Modern Baccalaureate covers the entire age range. MiniBac is designed for primary schools, MidBac for upper primary/lower secondary. These focus on achievement and progress. At age 14-19 the focus shifts to qualifications linked to the national qualifications framework. ModBac is flexible: schools can adopt or adapt existing programmes such as ASDAN programmes or RSA Opening Minds. It can also be used to validate apprenticeships.

3AQA Baccalaureate combines A Level subjects with wider learning and enrichment.

4The Government’s proposed TechBac to be introduced for courses beginning September 2014 comprises 3 elements: a vocational certificate; a maths qualification at Level 3 and an extended project.

5City and Guilds TechBac to be launched in September 2014. It’s a vocational programme designed to develop core technical knowledge and skills.

6International Baccalaureate (IB) is a longstanding international examination with a high reputation. It is only available in authorized schools. An IB Career-related Certificate (IBCC) is designed to meet the needs of students studying vocational courses.

7BTEC vocational examinations from Entry/Level 1 to Levels 4-7 (eg Higher Nationals).

A bewildering offering (and I may have missed some). So Labour proposes a National Baccalaureate to combine the best ideas of the options above and bring “coherence, clarity and common standards” to a confused system.

The Headteachers’ Roundtable, in its education election manifesto, recognises the current arrangements are fragmented, perplexing and erect barriers. Special needs students (SEN) find it difficult to achieve success, for example. The Roundtable proposes an “umbrella qualification” using the National Baccalaureate framework. It would encompass technical and academic learning, a personal development programme and an extended project. It would have tiered outcomes: Entry Level, Foundation, Intermediate and Advanced. All students would continue studying English and maths – these subjects could easily be incorporated into existing A level and BTEC courses.

The Roundtable’s proposal is ambitious and inclusive. It does not pitch vocational against academic. Neither does it imply the latter is somehow better than the former. And it recognises that the final examination goal for all pupils will not be at age 16 but at 18 in line with most of the developed world.

CORRECTION 11.13am. The original article referred to both iALevels and IALevels. The headline also referred to iALevels. I've changed all iALevels to IALevels. Thanks to FJM for pointing this out.

ADDENDUM. The original headline was "As independent schools consider moving to IALevels instead of the proposed A levels, are there other qualifications for age 18?"
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


FJM's picture
Fri, 09/05/2014 - 09:58

Excuse my pedantry, but it is IA, not iA. Heaven save us from the plague of iThis and iThat! (Likewise, IGCSE, not iGCSE.) Apple has a lot to answer for iN terms of iNnovations iN the way iNnumerable words are iNcreasingly being written iF they begin with i. iT must stop.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 09/05/2014 - 10:12

Thanks, FJM. I haven't even been consistent with my use of the lower case "i" in iALevels. I shall follow your iSuggestion and shall change all iALevels to IALevels.

That said, I wonder what Oliver Kamm, the Times "Pedant" would say about the increasing use of "i" at the start of words such as iPad. It's probably not covered by the rules of grammar (his expertise) but his view is that usage can trump alleged rules of grammar (as in "Ten items or less" at supermarket checkouts).

I can see how IPhone could cause problems with pronunciation at first glance (it's not pronounced IPP-hones) so I can see the logic in having a lower-case "i". And it looks more striking, of course.

I followed the same logic as Apple with iALevels. But i will defer to you in this iSubject.

FJM's picture
Fri, 09/05/2014 - 10:04

On a more serious note, how did universities manage before the introduction of AS-levels? Somehow they were able to make offers without any data from AS results being available. Coursework did not exist for most subjects a few decades ago either, with science A-levels including a practical exam taken in the same session as the written papers. I find that the AS exams are a real nuisance, with less flexibility in how to teach the syllabus, as certain topics have to be covered by May of the lower sixth, and the loss of four or five weeks whilst pupils have study leave in May and June is another drawback, with teaching time (sorry, teaching and learning time) being lost.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 09/05/2014 - 10:49

I have no informed opinion re AS levels. My initial response when they were first introduced was they encroached on the first year of sixth form and allowed less time for other valuable activities such as Young Enterprise. I didn't realise pupils lost time because of AS level "study leave" - this is time that could be better spent in school in Year 12.

However, IAlevels give schools the option to retain AS levels or to examine pupils at the end of Year 13. The proposed A levels don't have that flexibility.

Martin Richardson's picture
Fri, 09/05/2014 - 10:56

I have always been somewhat baffled by the English education system covering 10+ examined subjects at age 16 and then only 3+ at age 18. My personal preference is for broader qualifications at 18.

If it were available at my son's school (it isn't) then I would be pleased if he took the IB qualification (3 basic level, 3 advanced level, plus project and community work). The proposed National Baccalaureate seems to me to be similar and I would support that. Of course some students will want to specialise, some will want to do more vocational courses and from what I've read of the proposals the National Baccalaureate will support those routes as well.

As it is, he will have to make a choice in early 2016, and will more than likely have to drop some subjects which he is currently interested in, which would be a shame.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 09/05/2014 - 11:02

You're right, Martin. Pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland take far too many subjects at age 16. No other developed country has so many high stakes tests at this age - if they have tests at 16 (and not all do) then they are restricted to a few core subjects and the results are used to decide post 16 progression not to rank schools.

The Roundtable's proposed National Baccalaureate looks beyond age 16 to age 18 and allows multiple routes to graduation at a tiered level. This makes it accessible to pupils with special needs while at the same time stretching the most able.

FJM's picture
Tue, 13/05/2014 - 21:31

Before SATs were done away with in year 9, and also the ending of GCSE modules in year 10, pupils could face public exams for five years running: 9, 10, 11, 12 & 13. Perhaps it is time to restrict public exams to the end of the upper sixth.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 14/05/2014 - 06:22

FJM - despite the desire of politicians to constantly test children (not for the children's benefit but to "prove" their policies have raised standards) there are sound reasons for graduation at 18. It would put the emphasis in secondary schools back on education not on teaching-to-a-dozen-tests.

Similarly at primary school - year 6 in many schools has become a dreary round of SAT practice which has no educational value.

Martin Richardson's picture
Tue, 13/05/2014 - 22:45

FJM, my son is in year 9. He has faced a barrage of tests (not public exams, but still) since he started secondary school (and indeed SATS at the end of year 6). We've just received the test timetable for June, following a set of tests in English, Maths and Science in March for the purposes of grading for some options which are effectively selective.

My heart sinks when I see the test timetables. It isn't the school's fault, they are playing the league table game as best they can (and very successfully, given the intake). However, I do think the students and teachers could do with a break (of over a year) from weighing the pig.

There are many bright spots, the music school (not part of the Ebacc measure) is a work of league table defiant genius, as are other non-league table areas such as drama, sport, debating, art and many other things. The teaching staff are great.

It seems to me though that it is currently down to us as parents to widen the scope of 'education' because school life is so test and result driven. I'm sure most of the teaching staff would love to do more than they are currently able.

As for high-stakes testing at 18 only, I would definitely support that. Perhaps to provide breadth (I can't see Universities agreeing to A-levels which are less 'in-depth') there could be a variety of optional interim qualifications (GCSE-ish level?) which students could take when they are ready.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.