‘A’ Levels and The Baccalaureat

How would a broader based curriculum along international lines improve the ‘gold standard’- Dr Dick Evans investigates.

Following the fiasco of the introduction of Curriculum 2000 (C2k) the Secretary of State has suggested the possible development and introduction of a baccalaureat type examination to replace the GCE ‘A’ level.

The supposed gold standard protected and cherished by successive governments has suddenly lost its lustre as a result of this year’s problems with the GCE ‘A’ level results. The current arrangements for post-16 qualifications and the new national qualifications framework introduced in 2000 followed largely from the major review carried out by Ron Dearing in 1995. The review focused on the 16-19 qualifications and was required to pay particular regard to:

  • Maintain the rigour of ‘A’ levels (interesting to note this point it reinforces the supposed gold standard).
  • Build on the then current programmes of GNVQs and NVQs.
  • Prepare young people for work and higher education
  • Secure maximum value for money (VfM).

The remit stressed the need to address the important issues of depth (specialisation), breadth and balance. Many of the Dearing review recommendations were incorporated into the subsequent reforms introduced by this government for post-16 qualifications, which became known as Curriculum 2000 (C2k). However a number of commentators warned of the dangers of a rushed introduction of the reforms pointing out that there were some fundamental flaws in the proposed curriculum and assessment frameworks which could cause problems in the future. Issues about the increased assessment regimes associated with the modular structures at the first year stage (A1) and second year (A2) were raised as well as the difficulties of setting the final aggregated grade across for example the course work and traditional set examinations. The additional assessments and examinations required during the first year of study would create further pressure on teachers and students and deflect valuable resources including contact time from teaching and learning.This country already requires its students to be examined more than any other country in the world. School and college staff were not properly supported by way of staff development and the staff development programmes offered by the awarding bodies lacked realism about the quite fundamental changes that were being introduced over a tight implementation timescale. Many schools had little experience in operating and managing course work, which now formed part of the C2k. Also certain ‘A’ Level subjects particularly Mathematics because of its hierarchical nature could not be easily reconfigured over the two stages of A1 and A2 i.e. the previous A level could not be horizontally cut in half like many other subjects. The content would be difficult for students and teachers to cover in one year. The very poor results for ‘AS’ mathematics last year and the significant decrease of students progressing onto the A2 stage in the subject have shown that these concerns were justified.

Unfortunately many of these concerns were not listened to and this led inevitably to the problems that have now appeared in such high profile press coverage.


GCE ‘A’ levels were introduced in 1951 for students completing their sixth form studies in grammar and public schools but have continued relatively unreformed to become the major post-16 examination for young and mature students of which the majority now come from colleges. As a result the purpose of the examination in relation to the student population has changed significantly and yet the examination changed only slightly.

Any reviews were superficial and at worse tokenistic and the subsequent reforms were very much incremental. In spite of their longevity ‘A’ levels have attracted criticism from a number of individuals and groups. The criticisms centred on the issues of:

  • Depth (specialisation) verses breadth and balance of study for the individual student.
  • The primary purpose of ‘A’ levels as a basis for selecting students for higher education.
  • The tension between single ‘academic’ subjects and the need for more vocational approaches for students in order to be more practical and apply knowledge and understanding more effectively.

In spite of these legitimate and realistic criticisms the prestige and credibility of ‘A’ levels continued unchallenged even when international comparisons showed that the narrow and early specialisation were hindering the development of a workforce that could compete in the emerging global economies. No real root and branch reform was carried out and as so often in this country the resulting reforms could be described as just a tinkering exercise in order to maintain the so called flag ship status of the ‘A’ levels.

One of the real consequences of this belief held by politicians, universities and parents of ‘A’ levels as the gold standard was the neglect of the other qualifications and awards particularly in vocational areas, which were seen as second best. This obsession with ‘A’ levels reinforced the so-called academic vocational divide and held back many worthy curriculum developments over the recent decades e.g. GNVQs.

Even with the gold standard status a number of universities began in recent years to question the effectiveness of ‘A’ levels as a predictor of degree classifications and so joined the increasing ranks of critics of the examination.

During the past decade or so a number of proposals (1) have been made to introduce a baccalaureat type examination similar to that offered in Europe. All of these proposals highlighted the weaknesses of the ‘A’ level system and cited above and advocated the introduction of a unified ‘Advanced Diploma’ (AD) or ‘British Baccalaureat’ (BB).

The awards proposed would realise the necessary balance between depth, breadth and balance and offer opportunities for progression and transition into employment and/or further and higher education.


One such proposal published in 1990 and emanated from this government’s favourite think tank namely The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) and was called ‘A British Baccalaureat’. Interesting to note that a number of individuals involved with this important and worthy report now occupy senior positions in the government including the Department of Education and Skills and yet nothing happened once they came to power in 1997. That’s why I am surprised that the Secretary of State has raised the possibility of a baccalaureat award just days after defending the ‘gold standard’ when the fiasco of this year’s results surfaced. We will obviously have to wait and see what eventually develops following this miraculous conversion within the DfES and its staff. Whatever happens there are some major challenges and difficulties if such an award is introduced which I would like to explore now.

The award offers real opportunities to address and resolve many of the problems associated with the current ‘A’ levels and the award is characterised by the following aims:

  • Balance vocational capability with academic standards Allow depth (specialisation), breadth and balance.
  • Maximise choice and maintain flexibility.
  • Achieve entitlement for all skills, knowledge, competences and processes.

Interesting to note that about 40 schools and colleges in this country already offer the baccalaureat but the student numbers are very small. In order to realise the aims the award is broad based and requires the students to study the humanities, modern languages, arts, science and mathematics throughout the programme and does not allow too early specialisation at the cost of a narrow learning programme.

It is this requirement of a broad based curriculum offer that will cause some of the major problems for the government because the approach comes at a cost. Analysis of the contact time for a typical baccalaureat and ‘A’ level course (comprising 3 GCEs and entitlements including tutorials) shows that the baccalaureat requires 30-40% more time than the ‘A’ level. Typical contact values for a baccalaureate is 31 hours and for an ‘A’ level programme operating under C2K is around 20 hours.

Over the past few years the contact time for post-16 studies have been schematically cut, particularly for colleges, to realise the required annual efficiency gains. Therefore if the baccalaureat type award is introduced it will require a massive additional investment to allow increased contact time however that is defined. Extra funding will also be required for the additional accommodation and other physical resources such as specialised equipment for languages and science. Another problem with the possible introduction is the issue of teacher shortages as the development coincides with major teacher shortages in many of the key subjects that comprise the compulsory elements of the award. Acute shortages already exist in sciences, mathematics and modern languages. The case of modern languages presents a really interesting paradox for the government as it has just pronounced the removal of the opportunity of language study in the national curriculum in order for the introduction of the new applied GCSEs. A classic example of the contradictions and paradoxes that characterise politicians these days.

One essential requirement for the baccalaureat framework is the need for it to articulate with the national curriculum and allow smooth progression and transition for all students. Equally important is the issue of its relationship with the other post-16 curriculum pathways particularly the occupationally specific routes. The review and subsequent reforms must tackle and finally resolve the issue of parity of esteem with the vocational awards attested to by the NVQs. One problem highlighted by the various reports is the fact that a baccalaureate type award might be “unsuitable” for a number of students many of whom might have a focussed intention for a vocationally specific career and this is why the vocational route must be recognised and resourced equally as the non-vocational route. This is essential in order to increase the flow of highly qualified technicians and craftspeople into employment or to progress onto higher education and training e.g. graduate apprenticeship.


The introduction of a baccalaureat award would have many advantages over the current ‘A’level system but it must truly address and resolve the issues of depth, breadth and balance in order to create a unified curriculum framework which offers opportunities of smooth progression and transition to employment and higher studies and removes the damaging academic-vocational divide. The award will require a massive increase in funding in order to deliver a high quality provision and to begin to tackle the crisis associated with teacher shortages. Finally the reforms to the ‘A’ level must not deflect resources or the critical and essential attention that is now required for work based programmes of study and its awards.


  • “A British Baccalaureat”. (Ending the Division Between Education and Training) IPPR Finegold et al 1990
  • “Beyond GCSE”. Royal Society 1991. (I was a member of this committee and was impressed with its approach – very refreshing.
  • “A Framework for Growth APVIC”. 1991.
  • “Towards a Unified Curriculum”. APVIC 1993.
  • “The Technological Baccalaureat”. CGLI 1994

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