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Alan Johnson announces new programme to extend choice in post-16 provision

Education Secretary Alan Johnson and Prime Minister Tony Blair have today announced a radical new programme to increase teaching of the International Baccalaureate across local authorities.

Further, a new A* award will be introduced into the A-level to “encourage the best students to demonstrate the upper limits of their ability”.

The announcement is made a week before the much anticipated Leitch review on skills, and comes at a time when the future of post-16 provision has been hotly debated.

Mr Johnson said: “Every young person should be offered a choice of rigorous, challenging qualifications that suit their interests and abilities. This is the principle that underpins our secondary education and 14-19 reforms. Greater access to the International Baccalaureate will give students an opportunity that until recently has been offered by independent schools and only a small number of state schools”.

“We are expanding the availability of the IB, introducing new 14-19 Diplomas and making A-levels more stretching so that all young people have a choice to pursue the qualifications which are right for them”.

£2.5 million will be poured into ensuring that at least one institution within each local authority is teaching the IB; government estimates are that up to 100 institutions will offer the qualification by 2010. Further, local “14-19 partnerships” will be asked which institution in their area is best placed to deliver the IB.

And focusing on the A-level, Mr Johnson has rolled out a series of initiatives designed to increase the flexibility of the qualification and to allow the “best students to demonstrate the upper limits of their ability”. These will include the introduction of an A* grade, making questions more “open-ended and less prescriptive”, and the announcement that from 2008, students will be required to complete a “dissertation like project requiring independent research, thought and planning”.

He said: “A generation ago, one in ten entrants received an A grade. Today, that is one in four – and not because the exam has got easier but because teaching has improved and pupils are studying harder. I don”t accept the views of those who seek to portray our nation and its children as being well on its way to Hell in a handcart, but I do agree that we should ensure that A-levels remain stretching”.

“First, we will ensure that A-level papers contain more open ended questions, requiring greater thought and more detailed written replies, rather than short answer questions. This will give students an open-ended opportunity to shine and show their skills. And, second, we will introduce a new A* grade to reward achievement in these more stretching questions, encouraging the best students to demonstrate the upper limits of their ability”.

Commenting on the proposals, Principal of Peter Symonds College in Winchester, Neil Hopkins, said: “The Baccalaureate initiative is an interesting development. The main motivation for this seems to be to counter an attack by lots of independent schools on A-level, which in my view is because they”re getting very worried about the way colleges and schools are challenging them in the league tables”.

“If indeed they are introduced across each area, we will no doubt join with other people in offering them. There is nothing much wrong with A-level and nothing much wrong with the International Baccalaureate: if they”re there, then we will sort it out”.

Noting the introduction of the new A-level award, he continued: “As far as the A* is concerned, I think that it is an inevitable consequence, given the pressure that has been placed on A-level by attacks in the media and so forth. I therefore think it is a good idea to do it because it will help counter that negative press”.

“In practice of course, although there is all this talk about the number of people who get “A” grades, the arithmetic is often badly presented. It is actually the percentage of entries who get an “A” that people quote, which isn”t the same as the number of people who get three “A” grades, by any means”.

“More importantly, an even smaller percentage achieves “A” grades in every module. That is however, a very difficult concept for the public to grasp, so the A* will give a nice easy handle, in which case I think it is a logical progression from the GCSE A*, and broadly speaking I welcome that”, he added.

Vijay Pattni.

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