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October 2006
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Harder A-levels and boost for IB

A-level candidates in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are to face more "stretching" questions, and the chance to be awarded a new A* grade.

Meanwhile state school pupils in England will soon be able to study the International Baccalaureate.

Naturally the Teaching Unions leapt in to offer the Prime Minister's latest proposals a ringing endorsement...

The changes, outlined by Prime Minister Tony Blair in a speech in Birmingham, would be alongside the introduction of vocational Specialised Diplomas.

Teachers' leaders accused him of elitism and sowing confusion.


The government is now agreeing with the QCA in saying all questions should be more open-ended, requiring more thoughtful, detailed answers - and with a new top A* grade above the existing A to E grades.

Courses under the new system would be start in 2008 with the first of the new A*s being awarded in 2010.


The government in England is also providing £2.5m so every local authority has at least one centre offering the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma.

Although it has traditionally been the preserve of the independent sector, 46 of the 76 schools now offering the IB are in the state sector, in 32 local authorities.

The government funding will mean about 100 more such centres, the education department said - mainly sixth form colleges.

The IB is regarded as being more broadly based than A-levels in three or four specific subjects.

It involves six main subjects being studied over two years, chosen from literature, a second language, individuals and societies, experimental sciences, mathematics and computer sciences and the arts.


The leader of the NASUWT teachers' union, Chris Keates, said it would now be a case of "Baccalaureate for the best, Diplomas for the rest".

She added: "It is becoming increasingly evident that Number 10 is bewitched by the independent sector and is seeking to mimic its most unattractive feature - elitism."

Link: BBC Education.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Science is Hard

According to the House of Lords, pupils in England find science A-levels too difficult ...

Well, no great surprises there. Their Lordships even go on to observe that the evidence supports precisely this perspective.

Unfortunately they then suggest that "Science for All" would resolve the difficulties.

I have, in my own modest way, a few observations of my own:

  • Science is Hard
  • So are Brain Surgery, the Law of Tort and Ancient Greek
  • These subjects are, in truth, best tackled by smart pupils
  • These same pupils aren't best encouraged by an approach that says "anyone can do this"

The BBC offer a good precis of the report:

Physics especially suffered, the Lords science and technology committee said.

The problem was compounded by school league tables, "teaching to the test", poor labs, misplaced health and safety fears and a shortage of teachers.


One factor was simply fashion - with new options such as psychology, media studies and photography, which one witness to the committee said young people called "funky subjects".

For example, 50,000 students took psychology A-level in 2005, "significantly more than sat either Physics or Chemistry".

A more serious and fundamental problem was that traditional science subjects and maths were regarded as more difficult.

Not only that, there was evidence they actually were harder, the peers said.

The response from the Department for Education and Skills and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, that all A-levels were given equal weight, was "unconvincing".

"The Institute of Physics reported anecdotal evidence of schools 'actively discouraging students from taking subjects that could weaken their league table position' through lower A-level grades."


Lord Broers, the chairman of the Lord's committee which produced the report, said: "We call on the government to look again at a diploma or baccalaureate system, which would enable students to keep studying science and maths along with other subjects, reducing the tendency for them to drop science entirely for 'easier' subjects after their GCSEs.


The report also expressed concern that the new "light touch" Ofsted inspections would mean there would be no future evidence base on the quality of science teaching in schools.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston

Blinded by the Light

1997 saw the battle cry of Education, Education, Education. Well, here we are nearly 10 years later and things haven't got much further than the "vision thing" that Bill Gates once advocated.

In 1963, a previous Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, called for a new Britain to be "forged in the white heat of this [technological] revolution".

Nearly half a century on, Tony Blair is to call for more of the same: more than ever, our economic future is through "the brilliant light of science".

The prime minister is a late convert to science.


Mr Blair has presided over a time where the numbers of young people studying physics and chemistry have dwindled by a fifth. And a quarter of schools have no qualified physics teachers.

This is a deficiency he acknowledges but says he's trying to put it right.

"We've got to invest in science far more as a country. The government is tripling investment in science - to recruit better science teachers - which is why we're offering all sorts of incentives for that to happen. We've got specialist science and technology colleges which we are creating."

However, investment is well short of the target set by the European Union's aim of being the "most competitive, dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world".

That's a statement from the EU's Lisbon Strategy which aims to match the US's research funding of about 3% of GDP by 2010.

Currently, Britain's is just over 1% with plans to increase to 2.5% by 2015.

Link: BBC Science/Nature.

Follow me on Twitter: @IanYorston