Higginson (1988)

Notes on the text

The complete document is presented in this single web page. You can scroll through it or use the following links to go straight to the various sections:

Foreword (page 1)

1 The Present System (3)
2 General Principles (5)
3 Applying the General Principles (11)
4 Target Population (15)
5 Syllabuses (19)
6 Assessment (23)
7 Certificates (27)
8 Implications (29)
9 Organisation (31)
10 Implementation (33)
11 Some Consequences (35)

1 Membership of the Committee (37)
2 Terms of Reference (39)
3 Evidence (41)
4 Statistical Tables (47)
5 Abbreviations (51)

The text of the 1988 Higginson Report was prepared by Derek Gillard and uploaded on 4 March 2014.

The Higginson Report (1988)
Advancing A Levels

London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office 1988
© Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's Printer for Scotland.

[title page]

Department of Education and Science and the Welsh Office


Report of a Committee appointed by the
Secretary of State for Education and Science
and the Secretary of State for Wales

London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office
June 1988

[page iv]

© Crown copyright 1988
First published 1988

ISBN 0 11 270652 5

[page v]


1 The Present System3
2 General Principles5
3 Applying the General Principles11
4 Target Population15
5 Syllabuses19
6 Assessment23
7 Certificates27
8 Implications29
9 Organisation31
10 Implementation33
11 Some Consequences35

1 Membership of the Committee37
2 Terms of Reference39
3 Evidence41
4 Statistical Tables47
5 Abbreviations51

[page 1]


Our task

1 We were commissioned by the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Secretary of State for Wales in March 1987 to recommend the principles that should govern A level syllabuses and their assessment. Our terms of reference are given in Appendix 2.

2 From the outset we adopted the axiom that our eventual recommendations should encourage more young people to stay in full-time education after 16 and should make their stay challenging, attractive and productive.

3 We carefully examined all the submissions which came to us, in whatever form. Some were well outside our terms of reference, but we took them all into account in order to put A levels in the context of the whole 16-19 education and training provision. The spectrum of ability is continuous, but the education provision is not.

4 We identified many gaps in the 16-19 provision, but we concluded that it was not part of the role of A levels to fill them all. However we draw attention to the need for continuity and overlap between the many elements of provision for the 16-19 age group, and of course to the need for continuity throughout the whole age range, before, during and after A level.

5 The majority of students taking A levels are, and will no doubt continue to be, in the age range 16-19, but we had constantly in mind the special circumstances and needs of mature students.

Work of the Committee

6 At our meetings we received many groups and individuals for discussions which in the main were valuable. We also visited a number of maintained and independent schools, sixth form colleges, tertiary and further education colleges, covering all the major types of institution providing A level courses. We met many members of staff and students. We also visited the offices of several GCE Boards.


7 The major input of information was written evidence; we received more than two hundred items from organisations and individuals. The bulk of the evidence was prepared with great care and much of it was of high quality. We are most grateful to all those who have written to us, visited us or received us in their own institutions.

8 On nearly all the major issues a remarkable consensus emerged from the evidence. One of these was the need for the sixth form years to provide a broad and valuable experience. Since A levels took the place of Higher School Certificate they have assumed a wider role than the preparation for higher education which they played almost

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exclusively in their earlier years. The views of very many who submitted evidence were captured in a passage written by one of them:

"The most fundamental error in the traditional GCE/A level system was that each stage was designed to be suited for those who were going on to the next. Schoolchildren who were not good enough to go on were regarded as expendable. The other view, which seems to be held in every other advanced country, is that each stage of education should be designed for the main body of those who take it and the following stage has to start from where the previous stage ended."

9 We are especially grateful to Mr Brian Baish, Miss E M A Moss and Mr John Hamer HMI, who have devoted themselves to our task with enthusiasm and good humour.

Gordon Higginson (Chairman)

Sonia Beesley

Roy Harding

Graham Leech

Mark Nicolson

April 1988

[page 3]


1.1 The first examinations for the General Certificate of Education (GCE) at Advanced level (A level) were held in 1951. Unlike the Higher School Certificate which it replaced, GCE A level is a single subject examination. Candidates may enter for one subject, or for combinations of subjects, on as many occasions as they wish. It is administered by eight GCE Boards in England and Wales. While they collaborate over many issues, and their syllabuses and some of their procedures are subject to scrutiny by the Secondary Examinations Council (SEC), (1) they are independent bodies. In the summer of 1985, the latest year for which detailed figures are available, there were about 380,000 candidates for A level examinations and almost 635,000 subject entries. The comparable figures for 1951 were 37,000 and 104,000.

Other countries

1.2 This single-subject system is in marked contrast to the position in many other industrialised countries, (2) where there is a compulsory mix of subjects. The French Baccalaureat, for example, lasts for three years and is a multi-subject examination. Typically, candidates take written and oral examinations in seven subjects. In the USA the High School Diploma requires that, of the subjects studied, seven (English, social studies, mathematics, science, a foreign language and health and physical education) are compulsory. The German Abitur consists of four subjects with written examinations in two main subjects and an optional subject, and an oral examination in a second option. Candidates must include study of a modern foreign language, mathematics or natural science, and German. The grading system takes account of course work as well as the final examination.


1.3 The evidence gathered in our review of the position in England and Wales has shown that A levels are widely regarded as setting recognised standards of academic excellence. The best syllabuses are perceived as offering intellectual challenge by confronting able students in stimulating and demanding ways with the central concerns of the discipline. They encourage critical attitudes and develop analytical and interpretative skills. Where some have seen a fundamental weakness, however, is in their failure to identify with sufficient clarity their aims, objectives and criteria for assessment. The common perception is that over the years syllabuses have become too voluminous and candidates over-burdened with having to memorise a large amount of information to the exclusion of other important demands.

(1) At the time of writing a Bill is before Parliament which replaces the SEC by a School Examinations and Assessment Council (SEAC). In this Report when we refer to SEC we mean to refer also to its possible successor body SEAC.

(2) Selected National Education Systems Department of Education and Science (DES), 1985.

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1.4 The most frequent criticism of A levels presented to us was that the programmes of study are too narrow and that the system encourages premature specialisation. On the other hand, it has been argued that they have the flexibility to accommodate varying demands, at least in part. The proportion of candidates combining science and non-science subjects, for example, increased from under 10 per cent to almost 30 per cent between 1963 and 1985 (1). The recent introduction of Advanced Supplementary (AS) level syllabuses has been a step towards broadening students' experience.

Change ...

1.5 Much has changed both in the world of education and elsewhere during the 37 years of A levels' existence. In 1951 memories of the war years were still close to the surface. Computers were in their infancy. Artificial intelligence and space exploration existed only in the realms of science fiction.

and response

1.6 A levels can claim, with some justification, to have risen to many challenges. They have endeavoured to respond to the expansion of knowledge, to the accelerating pace of economic, social and technological change and to the shifts in popular expectations. Over the years alternative syllabuses have been introduced and innovative forms of assessment employed; but it is not surprising that more needs to be done. Our recommendations seek to exploit A levels' inherent strengths and flexibility in order to meet new demands both now and in the foreseeable future.

(1) Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson The Growth of Mixed A levels, Report to the Leverhulme Trust, Department of Education, University of Manchester, 1987.

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Meeting the needs of the UK

2.1 Last year a paper by the Council for Industry and Higher Education (1) began by saying that "the UK's prosperity, vitality and international standing depend on its becoming a more highly educated nation which recognises skilled brainpower and applied ingenuity as its distinctive assets". This is a view which we share and which has helped to shape the conclusions here and in the rest of our report. The education services, and by implication the examination systems, have to contribute towards making this country strong and prosperous.

and of individuals

2.2 At the same time, they should provide for the individual. As long ago as 1926, the Hadow Committee (2) saw that a balance must be struck in education between meeting the claims of society as a whole (by seeking to equip young people as "workmen and citizens") and attaching importance to individuals and their interests. Hadow and his colleagues concluded that the general aim of education should be "to offer the fullest possible scope to individuality, while keeping in view the claims and needs of the society in which every individual citizen must live." That conclusion is as sound now as it was in 1926.

2.3 The specific needs of society and of individuals are, however, constantly changing. Many of the requirements of industry and commerce nowadays are quite different from those in previous decades and will undoubtedly alter in the future. The opportunities for, and interests of individuals change substantially over a lifetime. Detailed information which is assumed to be accurate and of lasting use is often overtaken by research or becomes irrelevant at a later stage.

Qualities of mind

2.4 It is necessary, therefore, to look beneath the surface to identify the qualities of mind needed in a changing world. These are the ability to think, to act, to apply as well as to receive knowledge, to pursue links between different forms of understanding and to communicate effectively. Far from being arid utilitarianism, these qualities involve the capacity to be creative and discerning and to respond to challenges with enthusiasm. They encourage students to exercise judgement, to reason and to stand on their own feet, manage their own learning and do things for themselves. We support the view that "the process of education is not to be compared with that of filling up an empty pot, but rather with that of lighting a fire." (3) Good education and good

(1) Towards a Partnership Council for Industry and Higher Education, 1987. The Council is an independent body made up of twenty-two heads of large companies and ten vice-chancellors, polytechnic directors and heads of colleges.

(2) The Education of the Adolescent Report of the Consultative Committee, Board of Education, 1926.

(3) 15-18: Report of the Central Advisory Committee for Education (England), Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1959 (para 386).

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relevant examination syllabuses fire the imagination and encourage and assist students to advance independently, to work on their own and with others.

Examination objectives

2.5 The influence of examinations is considerable. Well designed, they assess achievement and stimulate good performance. The 1985 White Paper Better Schools (1) identified six objectives for examinations taken at school:

"to raise standards; to support improvements in the curriculum and its delivery; to provide clear aims for teachers and pupils, to the benefit of higher education and employers; to record proven achievement; to promote the measurement of achievement based on what candidates know, understand and can do; to broaden the studies of pupils in the 4th and 5th secondary years and of 6th form students."
To these, for A levels, should be added some wider objectives relating to candidates who, having left school, study for the examinations in colleges or at home.

Principles and approaches

2.6 These goals can be reached only if well-grounded principles and approaches are adopted. In particular there must be rigour and motivation; a broad, balanced educational experience must be provided for students; and the examination system must be practicable, flexible, and encourage and recognise achievement.


2.7 With an examination system of the status and importance of A levels, rigour is crucial. This was stated or implied by virtually all who provided us with evidence, though many were vague about the meaning of rigour. For us it involves notions of difficulty, of stretching candidates, of encouraging them to work hard and show what they can do. Rigour means drawing students as far along the road towards mastery within a subject as time and innate capacity allow. It means placing substantial demands on students so that they have to work hard throughout the course.

2.8 Rigour entails, too, assessing and rewarding higher level skills. When industry and commerce need people who can think and apply their ingenuity, examinations should favour those qualities rather than more shallow skills, like the ability to recite something parrot-fashion. A rigorous examination calls for more than the acquisition of factual information and other people's arguments: it calls, for example, for the skills of analysis, the ability to see connections and differences, and the capacity to understand. Learning facts provides a start, but making sense of them is what matters.

2.9 Rigour also involves assessment which has a claim to exactitude. That, in turn, means the minimisation of chance and the use of techniques which consistently measure what they claim to measure. A rigorous examination keeps in check the effects of accident or luck. Provided other elements of rigour are maintained, an examination which assesses candidates' achievements on two separate occasions, for example, is more rigorous than one which assesses them once: it is nearer to eliminating the fortuitous and to establishing the real capabilities of candidates. Similarly, an examination which uses two

(1) Better Schools, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1985.

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forms of assessment (written and oral, for instance) is likely to be more rigorous than one which uses a single form.

2.10 Rigour involves setting out plainly and precisely, though not necessarily in great detail, what is to be studied and learned, what is to be assessed and how the assessment is to be made. Ambiguity and uncertainty are at variance with rigour. The principles and criteria which underpin an examination have to be established for each of its stages and parts. There need to be general principles to govern the examination system as a whole, and subject-specific principles and criteria to regulate syllabuses and assessment procedures.

2.11 Rigour should pervade all aspects of A levels, from identifying aims and objectives and establishing syllabuses, to the setting and marking of questions and the awarding of grades. Public confidence in an examination and the currency of its certificates among employers and in higher education depend upon perceptions of its standards. High standards, in turn, depend in large part upon rigour.


2.12 These high standards depend, as well, on motivation. A levels should motivate both the students who take them and their teachers. A levels can and should animate students with enthusiasm and encourage them to put their best efforts into their studies. They can and should move teachers to adopt the best teaching practices, bringing courses to life. Rigour on its own can stultify; rigour and motivation promote high standards.

2.13 Syllabuses, therefore, need to be attractive and stimulating. Embarking on an A level should offer the prospect not only of a certificate to set before an employer, or of a place in higher education, but also of a course which in itself is interesting, enjoyable and pertinent to a career or some other aspect of life. One aim must be to whet the appetite for active learning. Project and practical work, simulation, working with others, discussion and oral presentation can all offer opportunities for students to practise relevant skills and can jolt them out of a passive attitude to learning.

2.14 In addition, the examination system should be designed to provide feedback into teaching and learning. Teachers and students need constant feedback to check on progress, to recognise achievement, to see and understand the causes of difficulties or misconceptions, and to encourage movement to the next stage. Formal assessment is one means of gaining feedback, and public examinations should play their part. Public examinations in the form of end-of-course assessment can make their contribution only in a belated and generalised way. More apt for purposes of diagnosis is what we refer to later as descriptive assessment (paragraph 6.13) and assessment which takes place during the course.

2.15 At their best, well constructed syllabuses and good teaching help to bring many students to the point where they wish to proceed with increased independence. Students then invest some of their free time in pursuing the subject; they display an eagerness to take a topic beyond what is strictly necessary to complete the syllabus or to answer probable examination questions; they develop not only an understanding of a subject, but also a love for it. Private reading time spent on exploring the edges of a syllabus or on research or investigative field

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work becomes more of a pleasure than a chore. The pursuit of scholarship becomes worthwhile in itself. These are the signs of strong motivation and ultimately of a good examination.

Breadth ...

2.16 In the evidence presented to us from all sides of industry, commerce and education there was overwhelming support for increased breadth in the programmes of A level students. Time after time the plea was made that the UK should follow the example of other developed countries, our trading competitors. These countries provide educational breadth for the 16-19 age group; they recognise the national economic benefits arising from a broadly educated and adaptable workforce. We believe we should follow suit.

2.17 The crucial questions are how breadth is to be achieved and what kind of breadth is necessary. Some breadth should undoubtedly come from within individual subjects. Each syllabus should make connections with the content and skills commonly associated with other subjects; each should encourage familiarity with the study and work methods used in other subjects; and each should foster general skills, such as those relating to communication, which cross subject boundaries.

balance ...

2.18 To that should be added, however, the breadth which comes from studying a balanced spread of subjects. If students are to retain contact with the various broad aspects of life - science and the humanities, in particular - and if they are to accept and prepare for a variety of challenges in further and higher education and employment, they need to select programmes of study which reflect those aspects and set those challenges. The examination system should facilitate and encourage such a selection.

and depth

2.19 Breadth in those terms need not and should not be at the expense of depth. It is in some ways unfortunate that breadth and depth are spatial terms, and when applied to the teaching and learning process imply for some a conflict - the thought being that if a syllabus or programme of study has breadth, it must lose something in depth; if the spade goes deeper, the surface area which can be dug must be smaller. The metaphors are misleading. In education, breadth and depth should be complementary.

2.20 Properly managed, breadth should increase understanding by enabling students to grasp the contrasts and interactions between a range of themes and subject matter. Knowledge of the broad context assists clarity; knowledge of the relationship between issues improves understanding, the grasp of principles and methods of working.


2.21 Relevance aids understanding. Moreover, if, in their careers or to further their leisure interests, students are to use the skills and information they acquire to the best advantage, what they study and how it is presented needs to be relevant. They need to be faced with realistic problems and situations, be it in design, physics or languages. Opportunities must be found to allow them to practise the skills and apply the information in contexts which lie outside the walls of the classroom or the pages of the textbook.


2.22 The A level system needs two kinds of flexibility: that which makes it capable of responding to external change, and that which

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enables different kinds of students to benefit from it. The first ensures that the broad framework of the system endures in a changing world and continues to serve a useful purpose. Social and economic developments, trends in the occupational structure and requirements of our industries and changes in educational emphases, all call for flexibility. Too rigid a framework for A levels would, for instance, stifle curriculum development or make it difficult for schools and colleges to take full advantage of technological advances. Flexibility allows A level syllabuses to be influenced, at one end, by new thinking at higher education and employment levels and, at the other, by curricular issues arising in education pre-16.

2.23 The second kind of flexibility complements the first and enables all manner of able students to see A levels as a means of furthering their education. For the individual student, flexibility is about the system's capacity to respond to his or her particular circumstances and to changes in those circumstances. In that sense, a flexible examination system provides choice and a recognition that talent comes in all forms and degrees. Some students are able, even very able, in one or two subjects, but are unable to cope with more than that. Others have ability in a broader range of subjects. A levels should allow and encourage sensible choices so that talented students of both kinds can offer themselves as candidates.

2.24 A levels should as far as possible also offer flexibility in terms of movement from and to other courses and examinations, such as those offered by the Business & Technician Education Council (BTEC). Movement of that nature could be of major significance to some individuals. It implies compatibility between systems - a sufficient degree of commonality of syllabus objectives, assessment techniques and marking standards to carry the confidence of different examining bodies, employers and institutions of further and higher education. Such flexibility would add considerably to the capacity of A levels to respond to the special circumstances and requirements of some students.

2.25 It is for these reasons that we have concluded that the A level system must continue to offer single subjects. We were pressed by a number of witnesses to recommend the adoption of a system akin to that of the Baccalaureat or Abitur, in which students would be required to take a pre-selected group of subjects. In this way it would be possible to force upon students a balanced programme; but we reject prescription because of its inherent inflexibility, though we argue later for advice and counselling so that most follow a balanced programme.


2.26 A good examination system has to be practical. Within the time allotted to them, teachers have to be able to teach, and students have to be able to learn and understand, the information, concepts and skills determined by the syllabuses. Schools and colleges operate within constraints of timetables and resources, e.g. the availability of suitable staff, accommodation and equipment. A levels must recognise these constraints and offer syllabuses and assessment which can be managed in small as well as large sixth forms and in colleges of all kinds. The system must take into account the different circumstances of full-time and part-time students. Sound educational principles have to be supported by workable procedures.

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and cost effectiveness

2.27 A constant aim should also be to make those procedures cost-effective. Cutting costs to an absolute minimum may be self-defeating: high standards are not likely to be bought at the cheapest rates. When the whole educational process which brings students to the point of A level examinations is so costly, it would be false economy to skimp on what has been described as the quality control which assessment provides. It is, however, necessary to seek value for money and to ensure that Board costs (and thus the fees which are largely paid by Local Education Authorities) and the costs falling on schools and colleges are kept within sensible bounds, and that teacher expertise and time are used effectively.

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Improvements needed

3.1 How well do A level syllabuses and assessments match up to these requirements? The short answer is - not well enough for modern needs. Rigour in assessment tends to be focused on a single point at the end of the course and is often based solely on written tests. Some students get high grades without that consistent application which promotes understanding; their success is gained through question spotting and a short burst of revision in the last week or so of a course.

3.2 There are syllabuses which fail to stretch students sufficiently, reward higher level skills and to stimulate students to stand on their own feet. Oral skills are largely ignored. Too few syllabuses provide illustrations and comparisons to connect with the experiences of young people. Too few seek to develop initiative, independence and confidence.

3.3 The best A level syllabuses are attractive and demanding; but even they are not providing the breadth and flexibility which is necessary. Students taking three A levels - the most common pattern in schools - are on a relatively narrow course of study however broad the individual syllabuses are. Many of those students have had to make uncomfortable choices to reduce the number of subjects to three; and for the growing proportion which seeks to retain both arts and science subjects the constraints are considerable. Three subjects are insufficient.

3.4 The introduction of AS levels is therefore welcome. For example, they allow and encourage schools, colleges and students who have been taking three subjects to think in terms of four, three at A level and one at AS, or two each at A and AS level. They are a major step towards providing breadth and flexibility and all the while maintaining high standards. They are securing wide recognition in the entry requirements of universities and polytechnics, and are opening up the prospect of students being able to defer choice of specialisation.

Moving forward

3.5 The combined system of A and AS levels should, however, be developed. The move from three subjects to four (for example, three A levels and one AS level or two plus two) is useful, but an extension to five subjects would be an important improvement. It would give better choice, better opportunities for balance and greater breadth. Brought about in the right way, it would increase rigour and improve rather than simply maintain standards.

3.6 There are two parts to achieving this. The first relates to the amount of time set aside for A levels in schools and colleges; the second relates to making the best use of that time. Action on both is necessary to produce an outcome which is practical and effective.

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More time for A levels

3.7 For students taking A levels, schools and colleges provide taught periods in the selected subjects (for example, eight periods per subject in a 40 period week) and expect a proportion of the remaining time to be devoted to private study connected with A levels. We call the combination of the two 'A level time'. In addition, taught periods are provided for non-examined studies and some of the other periods may be spent on those studies or, in a general way, on improving the social and personal skills of students. We call this 'general time'.

3.8 Schools and colleges value the general time, and rightly so. Among other things, general time is meant to give breadth and the chance for students to become more rounded individuals. If A levels themselves provided greater breadth, both within subjects and by individuals taking more subjects, some general time could be surrendered. If A levels did more to encourage such non-subject-specific skills as communication and some of the personal qualities which are widely considered to be desirable - initiative, independence and a capacity to understand human behaviour, for example - a little more general time could be given up to A level time.

Syllabuses leaner ...

3.9 The first essential for moving to an effective five subject system - more A level time - is therefore attainable. The second, making better use of the time, can be achieved through leaner syllabuses, occupying, say, six rather than eight periods. In other words, the time spent on each subject can be trimmed if it is more profitably used. We received much evidence about overloaded syllabuses. Each subject syllabus should focus more sharply on making sense of the facts. It means reducing to a minimum time-consuming tasks with limited intellectual demands and return. It means removing altogether the temporary committal to memory of inessential and inconsequential information.

3.10 For a student taking five of the leaner A level syllabuses, the total amount of factual content to be mastered would be roughly the same as that of a four syllabus programme of three A levels and one AS level. Paring away the padding would reduce the factual content of each syllabus, but increasing the number of syllabuses would maintain the overall level of factual content for the programme as a whole. The extra A level time gained at the expense of general time would be given over to the further development of higher level skills. This would alter the balance in a student's overall programme between skills and factual content, but it would do so by increasing the former, not by reducing the latter.

and tougher

3.11 The leaner syllabuses would be tougher. They would be concerned with the essence of a subject; they would demand understanding and a thorough grasp of essentials; they would stimulate intellectual curiosity, encourage general investigation and communication skills and develop those qualities which are picked out in the notion of a trained mind. They would appeal to and reward those whose ability stems from diligence and a readiness to learn. The five subject programme would also be tougher, asking students to rise to the challenge of a broader range of information and skills.

3.12 There is a corresponding need for the system to be changed so that more students are brought to the level where they will successfully tackle these tougher syllabuses. As we explain in other

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parts of our report, this involves providing students with clearer targets, encouraging teachers to adopt the best practices and the provision of better feedback from A levels into teaching and learning. The aim should be to bring students to perform more effectively; not to reduce the numbers who can take A levels. If A levels provide students and teachers with the opportunities and means to perform at their best, high standards can be met by more students.

3.13 It is important that, within the usual constraints of school and college timetables, students should be free to choose the number of subjects they take and to select the subjects which correspond with their interests, abilities and perceived needs. At present some students take one A level and others take as many as five at a single sitting. With the introduction of AS levels some will now take a further one or two subjects. Similarly in future there will be a wide range and mixture of A and AS levels including one A level at the lower end, and three A levels and three AS levels, or five A levels and one AS level, towards the upper end.

3.14 There are some students who, at 16-plus, know where they want to go and wish to concentrate on a restricted range of A levels. The system should not deter them from following their chosen route. It should, however, provide opportunities and encouragement to broaden the front on which they advance. Mature students who wish to add a fresh dimension to existing qualifications will be able to do so.

3.15 For these two kinds of student in particular, there should be, in addition to the existing range of syllabuses, AS level syllabuses which are supportive of their main choices and yet contrasting with them: mathematics/statistics specifically for the humanities student, for example, or modern languages specifically designed for scientists; these would broaden the students' skills without unnecessarily distracting them from their main interest. Later in this report we develop this proposal.

3.16 Some students embarking on A and AS levels are unsure which subject or subjects they would like to study in further or higher education; or they want to keep alive a number of career possibilities. For these students a system of leaner syllabuses would be helpful. Five of the new syllabuses would be a possible study programme. The leaner syllabuses, being somewhat smaller units, afford additional flexibility.

3.17 For a variety of reasons, therefore, we favour leaner, tougher syllabuses, and programmes of study which involve five subjects as a norm for full-time students rather than three. In the rest of our report we build on that framework and recommend ways in which the general principles we identified earlier should be brought to bear on A levels.

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Original target

4.1 When A levels were introduced, and for some time after, there was little doubt about intended candidates. They were grammar or independent school students planning to become undergraduates. A levels were the means of assuring universities of the intellectual capacity of would-be entrants and a basis upon which degree courses could be founded. A few candidates took A levels at a college of further education rather than at school, and some took them at school and then left to take up a job rather than go to university. In general, however, A levels were aimed at able school students seeking entry to higher education.

Overtaken by events

4.2 Over the last thirty-five years the number of candidates has increased by an order of magnitude. With the emergence and growth of comprehensive schools and of sixth form and tertiary colleges, A levels are now taken at a wider range of institutions. More and more candidates study for A levels, full-time and part-time, at colleges of further education. An increasing number have seen the examinations as stepping stones to employment. Nowadays only about half of those who leave school with two or more A level passes embark on degree courses.

4.3 Some students who set out on A level courses do not complete them, and, on average, about a third who take the examination in any subject do not receive an A level pass grade in that subject.

4.4 The A level system has proved to be remarkably adaptable. It has, up to a point, coped with the changing profile of its candidates. Time after time, however, the evidence we received referred to the unnecessary dominance of university needs in the determination of A level objectives. We were repeatedly urged to take greater account of the fact that many candidates do not become, or wish to become, undergraduates. We agree that the target population must be broadly defined. Assumptions which were good enough in the early 1950s are inappropriate now and must be set aside.

High ability group

4.5 There is one crucial exception. Candidates must continue to be drawn from a high ability group. It is an indispensable feature of the A level system that it maintain high standards. Students taking A levels must therefore expect a searching examination, and designers of A level syllabuses and assessment procedures should take as their target all those who have the capacity to work hard and do well when faced with intellectual demands.

4.6 Some arguments are put forward for a drop in standards so that less able candidates can be drawn into the A level net. It is said, for example, that this would ensure a steady or increasing flow of students to higher education. There is certainly a national need for

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more higher education students, but watering down A level standards is an unacceptable way of meeting it. Other, more positive, action is necessary.

4.7 There are three forms which this action can take: increasing the number of potential A level candidates coming forward, particularly at 16-plus, with the necessary qualities and experience; reducing the wastage rate (the percentage of students who abandon A level studies); and making the A and AS system and individual syllabuses more attractive to all able students. Of these three, the first is an educational task which falls outside our terms of reference. As far as those at school are concerned, however, recent developments, including proposals for a broad national curriculum, give cause for optimism. In future, more 16 year olds should have the right educational experience to benefit from A levels.

Ability the key

4.8 The second and third forms of action (reducing wastage and making A levels more attractive) do fall within our remit, and our report addresses them. The conviction underlying our recommendations is that A levels should be aimed at all students of sufficient ability. They should be designed for those who intend to go straight from school into employment as well as for those who wish to go into higher education; for mature students as well as for those embarking on A levels at 16-plus; for male and female students; and for students from all racial, cultural and religious backgrounds. They should be aimed at students from all socio-economic groups. They should cater for those who wish to combine A levels with study for other qualifications as well as those who intend to take only A levels.

4.9 It is probably too much to expect that, in reality, A level candidates will be a cross-section of society with each element represented in proportion to its numerical size in the community. Many complex and powerful factors are at play to prevent this. For example, some able 16 year olds leave school despite having academic ambitions; they do so to take up a job to earn a wage. In a society where there is no automatic right to state support for students who stay at school beyond the minimum leaving age, there will always be young people who leave school or feel that they have to leave as soon as they can because they and their families would otherwise have to make unacceptable financial sacrifices.


4.10 A levels should be accessible to as many able people as possible. The vast majority will no doubt continue to be full-time students in the 16-19 age group: meeting their needs is of primary importance. A significant proportion, however, will be mature part-time students, and attention should be paid to their special circumstances. It may be necessary, for example, to make some different arrangements for them when new assessment methods are introduced which place less emphasis on written, end-of-course examinations.

4.11 A levels must also be equally accessible to male and female students. It is a welcome fact that since the introduction of A levels the number of female candidates has moved nearer to that of males, with the former increasing at twice the rate of the latter between 1951 and 1985. The gap has narrowed to the point where in England and Wales in 1985 there were nearly 302,000 entries by female candidates compared with just under 333,000 by males. In Wales the number of entries by females was greater. Efforts should be made to narrow the

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gap still further, and to make the syllabuses attractive equally to male and female students. This is particularly important in subjects where there is an imbalance - in mathematics, physics and chemistry, for example, where male entries predominate, and modern languages and biology, where the reverse is true.

4.12 The A level system should encourage able candidates of all kinds and from all family backgrounds. Within our society there are many different racial, cultural and religious groups. The family language in some homes is neither English nor Welsh. In so far as is practicable, A levels should take account of these features. There will be limitations to what can be achieved, but there should be a constant Willingness to probe assumptions about the nature of the target group for A levels.

4.13 The days have long gone when it could be assumed that A levels should be directed at a narrow group of students with higher education in mind. Many who take A levels at 18-plus will go on to further or higher education; many others will leave to take a job. The distinguishing characteristic of A level students should not be where they have come from or are going to, or their mode of attendance or their age, but that they can benefit from a challenging educational course useful in its own right.

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5.1 All A level syllabuses should be governed by published general principles and by published subject-specific principles. This message was relayed to us by many who gave evidence, and the arguments in its favour are overwhelming. In the interests of coherence, effectiveness and public accountability, the fundamentals of the system must be set out for all to see. The search for higher standards can be pursued efficiently only if the basis for those standards is described openly and clearly.

5.2 General syllabus principles should reflect the principles we have described as applicable to the system as a whole. As we have said, there is a need for leaner syllabuses in which the proportion of factual content has been reduced and in which the accent is on higher level skills and making sense of the facts (paragraphs 2.8 and 3.9-3.11). These leaner, tougher syllabuses should enable and encourage teachers to use the best teaching methods, bringing courses to life and highly motivating students (paragraphs 2.12 and 2.13). The advantages of individual and group project and practical work, simulation and discussion and oral presentation should be recognised (paragraph 2.13).

5.3 We have stressed that syllabuses should bring many students to the point where they wish to proceed with increasing independence (paragraph 2.15). Each syllabus should make connections with other subjects and foster general skills (paragraph 2.17). Syllabuses should be relevant (paragraph 2.21) and within the bounds of practicality, in terms of both human and financial resources (paragraphs 2.26 and 2.27). They should take as their target a group which has high intellectual capacity (paragraph 4.5).

5.4 We have argued that syllabuses should not discriminate against male or female students or against students from any racial, cultural or religious background (paragraph 4.8). The syllabuses should be accessible to students from all socio-economic groups (paragraph 4.8), irrespective of their mode of attendance or their age (paragraph 4.13).

5.5 The overall aim should be to promote rigorous, broad and stimulating courses for a wide range of able students. An essential feature of the syllabuses should be that they promote understanding and those skills and attitudes which come with understanding - such as initiative and confidence, creative thinking, adaptability and the capacity to work independently and with others. We cannot emphasise too strongly that understanding should be a dominant theme. At this stage, skills such as the ability to memorise and recall facts and arguments should be a corollary of the need for students to understand rather than as ends in themselves.

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5.6 Many of these general principles are similar to those which have already gained credence among employers and in higher education and which have been accepted by Government. All of them, together with the criteria set out below (paragraphs 6.5 and 6.6) on assessment, should be codified by SEC, which should also set in train the development of subject-specific principles. In the expectation that the subject-specific principles will vary with the nature of each subject, we confine ourselves to one recommendation about their content.

Common cores

5.7 For each subject there should be a new identified and compulsory common core. In this way there will be greater comparability between Boards. Employers will more easily understand what it means when job-applicants say they have completed a course in a particular A level subject. Institutions of higher education will be able to depend on students arriving with some skills and information in common.

5.8 The characteristics and size of the core may well vary from subject to subject. We see no merit in preconceived limits. The aim should be to describe the essential A level features of the subject which make it generally recognisable. We have elsewhere emphasised the importance of higher level skills, and the core should be described in terms of these skills, and not simply as a list of content; but the specifics must be considered separately for each subject.


5.9 The establishment of published general and subject-specific principles and assessment criteria should be followed by a review of all A level syllabuses. We say something about the logistics of this review in paragraph 10.5 below. Its main features would be a submission by each Board of the A level syllabuses it wished to offer; the scrutiny of every submission by SEC to ensure that the syllabus covers a significant area of knowledge, has an accurate and simple title and is in other ways in conformity with the published. principles and assessment criteria; and a drastic reduction in the number of syllabuses.

5.10 This last is particularly important. There are far too many A level syllabuses. Distinctions between some of them are difficult to draw, and much confusion is caused by the proliferation of titles. An enormous amount of effort goes into drawing up and maintaining something like 400 separate but often overlapping syllabuses. The education system can ill afford such extravagant use of resources, particularly human resources. Far too little use is made of inter-Board arrangements for shared syllabuses. We believe Boards and SEC should always consider whether overlap is justified and when the number of candidates is, or is likely to be, small, shared syllabuses should be the norm.

New AS levels

5.11 As soon as the review of A level syllabuses has been completed, the Boards and SEC should look at AS level syllabuses to see to what extent and how they should be revised. There is one aspect of AS levels, however, which can be tackled at an earlier stage. As we indicated above (paragraph 3.15) there is a need for AS levels which at one and the same time and for the same individuals are contrasting and complementary. These would broaden the education of students and also support their chosen A level studies.

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5.12 A modern language course directed at students taking science, for example, would provide a broadening and useful extra set of skills. In one sense, therefore, the course would be contrasting to the main subjects of study. But it would take into account that the students were looking towards further or higher education, or a career, involving science, rather than modern languages. It would be slanted towards the needs of scientists and in that sense complementary to the science subjects. Similarly, a statistics course aimed at students of the humanities would provide breadth and would contrast with the main areas of study; but by being targeted on the needs of those whose main interests are on the arts/humanities side, it would also be supportive, servicing and complementary.

5.13 These AS levels would be truly supplementary. They should cover a limited number of subjects: we recommend mathematics/statistics, science/technology, modern languages, economics/business studies and communication. Essentially these courses would be broad and practical; for example a modern language course for science students would be primarily oral. They would have a different emphasis from that of A levels in the same subject, seeking to service other main studies. As with current AS levels, the standard would be the equivalent of A levels.

5.14 Given the role we see for these and other AS levels, we envisage that the amount of time given to them will remain as at present. That is to say, they would normally occupy four periods a week on a forty period timetable. They would usually be two-year courses, as now.


5.15 It would be possible to divide subjects and syllabuses into units or modules, and many have urged us to adopt this line. Modules could be created so that, taken in sequence or in various combinations, they would provide considerable flexibility and greatly increased opportunities for breadth and feedback. We are encouraged by the work on modules which has been undertaken so far, in connection with the development of the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, for example, and we are attracted by the possibilities.

5.16 In particular, some kinds of modular syllabuses and assessment would provide ways of acknowledging the achievements of students who, for one reason or another, do not complete a full two-year course. At present, students leaving school or college after, say, a year of A level study, have nothing to show for their efforts. Certain modular systems would make it possible to test and record progress at intervals so that these students, on leaving, would be able to refer to and gain credit for what they had learned. Modules could be compatible with elements in other examinations and this would facilitate credit transfer.

5.17 There are few modular systems operating at present and they vary widely in their characteristics. There are many issues to be explored before all A level syllabuses could be made modular. The advantages and disadvantages of various systems would have to be weighed, and much more experience gained. There are well-known practical problems, for example, about students taking modules in the order most suitable for their own programmes of study, and about

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some students being assessed on a module early in a course (say at age 17) and others much later (say at age 18). We believe that there is a great deal at stake and that a co-ordinated programme of investigation should be set in hand.

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Principles ...

6.1 We have argued earlier in favour of assessment at more than one point in a course and in more than one form - oral as well as written, for example (paragraph 2.9). We have also stressed the need for assessment to provide feedback (paragraph 2.14), to be supported by workable procedures (paragraph 2.26) and to be aimed at a target group which has a high intellectual capacity (paragraph 4.5).

and practice

6.2 Something of this is reflected in current practice. There have been moves towards, for instance, oral examining, extended essays and a requirement for personal research. Where they are well constructed and well regulated such moves are welcome. They provide both a more searching test and a fuller picture of students' capabilities. More needs to be done to develop these approaches, particularly in relation to oral work.

6.3 We accept the need to retain sufficient variety of practice to permit worthwhile developments in examining to take place. We accept also the variety which is needed to meet the particular demands of different subjects. But the evidence we have received has shown that there are often wide differences in procedures as well as assessment practices. Boards act differently, for example, over the awarding of final grades, over the reviewing of scripts which are on the borderline between grades, and over appeals. Procedural differences of this kind do not have the same justification. In the interests of fairness and credibility there should be greater uniformity between and within the Boards on these aspects of examining.

General and subject-specific principles

6.4 This greater uniformity would be secured in part by the general and subject-specific principles which we propose should be drawn up by SEC. As well as promoting fairness, such principles would assist the wider introduction of improved forms of assessment into A level examining. Those who draw up the principles would need to address, for example, means of targeting questions and papers with specific assessment objectives, the possibility of pre-trialling questions and of limiting choice.

Assessment criteria ...

6.5 We have referred to these as principles because we wish to reserve the term criteria for the processes of measuring and reporting a student's performance. The general and subject-specific principles, therefore, exist to regulate the nature of the syllabus and examining process. Assessment criteria set out what a candidate must achieve, the amount of knowledge or level of skill to be displayed, in order to gain a given mark on a question or task, or to obtain a particular final grade. In embryo, assessment criteria already exist in many marking schemes and are widely held to be desirable. Furthermore, the recently revised grading system requires examiners to determine the

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grade A/B, B/C and E/N boundaries using their professional judgement. The report of the SEC which foreshadowed these changes proposed the development of criteria for grades B and E, based on explanations of these qualitative judgements. If this can be done for grades B and E, it can and should be done for all grades.

should be pursued

6.6 The development of explicit criteria, subject by subject, offers the prospect of reliable marking; detailed reporting of performance and precise definition of standards. These are prizes worth capturing.

6.7 We are, however, aware of the many obstacles to be confronted. The demands of A level examinations are complex. One question may test a wide range of attributes. A final grade is achieved by a variety of routes. Consensus on, for example, levels of attainment, their relative value and how they should be aggregated into an overall grade is difficult to reach. It would be unrealistic to attempt to travel too far or too quickly away from determining grades largely by numerical means. Nevertheless, we support the eventual goal of criteria-based assessment and reporting', and initiatives in this direction should be vigorously pursued.

In-course assessment

6.8 Assessment criteria are a means of enhancing rigour and offering more valuable feedback. As we have argued in paragraph 2.14 a combination of in-course and end-of-course assessment has the same merits. For employers, higher education, parents, teachers - and for the students themselves - this combination gives a more certain account of achievement. It is capable of informing and guiding the development of teaching' and learning; and it promotes a wider range of assessment expertise amongst teachers. These are strong' grounds for arguing that all A level courses should contain an element of internally conducted and externally moderated assessment. Such an element should normally account for some 20 per cent of the final score. In-course assessment should be neither oppressive nor the major means of determining a student's performance in any syllabus.

6.9 With in-course assessment there are quite proper concerns to ensure that there is comparability of standards between candidates and between institutions. These concerns are generally addressed in one of two ways; by comparing a student's in-course performance with that achieved in external examination; or by Board-appointed moderators using their knowledge of the Board's standards and of standards elsewhere to check the assessments made by anyone school or college. Ideally, this latter procedure of moderation by inspection involves moderators being involved at an early stage in the course, not just at the end. This monitoring role is important in giving students and teachers confidence that their work is appropriately directed.

6.10 An alternative way of controlling in-course assessment would be for Boards to accredit institutions or subject departments. This would require the Board initially to be satisfied that the standards by which students were assessed were appropriately demanding and testing, and thereafter to check, say normally every three years, that they were being maintained.

6.11 At present the practice of accreditation is largely confined to higher education. Its extension into schools and colleges would enable the processes of monitoring and moderation to be carried out in a

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regulated and, we believe, cost effective way. For these reasons the possibilities offered by accreditation should be explored.


6.12 With both in-course and end-of-course assessment the need for rigour imposes demands on the way in which questions and papers are set. The A level candidature has a greater homogeneity than that for GCSE. There is not, therefore, the same requirement for differentiated papers within a subject, that is for papers explicitly aimed at students of different levels of ability and on which only a pre-specified range of grades (for example A-C and C-N) could be achieved. But the principle of differentiation - that students should be enabled to show their strengths and to demonstrate what they know, understand and can do, not merely to display their weaknesses - should apply equally to A levels.

Descriptive assessment ...

6.13 Approaches to assessment which focus on what students cannot do have limited value in providing feedback. Nor do they offer a sufficient and reliable basis for selection for higher education or employment. Rather, assessment should seek to portray both strengths and weaknesses in terms of agreed criteria. We refer to this as descriptive assessment.

6.14 The term descriptive assessment picks out those strategies designed, for example, to determine the degree of certainty with which information has been retained, the range of contexts in which it can be applied or the level to which a skill has been mastered. In that it seeks greater precision, descriptive assessment is a further important dimension of rigour: in that it makes students aware of their strengths, it increases motivation.

profile reporting ...

6.15 Consistent with this would be moves away from reliance on a single grade and towards forms of profile reporting which seek to describe as well as to categorise students' performance. This would indicate achievement in each of a number of different aspects of a subject. It might be done, for example, by reference to performance on different papers, by identifying different areas of knowledge and skill and by separating practical, oral and written elements. Such profiles, by distinguishing between and rewarding different facets of performance, give students an extended range of targets at which to aim. The most able will be encouraged to seek not only the highest overall grade, but also to achieve a good performance in each and every element. Others, including those who struggle to achieve an overall pass grade, will be encouraged to make the most of their strengths in the expectation that each will be recognised.

and marking

6.16 We are aware of the concern, stronger in some subjects than in others, over the frequent reluctance of examiners to utilise the full range of marks. This bunching of candidates' scores led to the revised grading system introduced in 1987. It is another indication of the need for criteria which might enable clearer distinctions to be drawn. Additional possibilities are offered by profile marking in which an answer is given a number of scores to indicate the extent to which it meets different assessment objectives. For example a response might be marked under separate headings for displaying information-finding skills, indicating a grasp of data, and evaluating evidence.


6.17 An effective appeal system is a costly component of an examination system. It is, nevertheless, essential to the preservation

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of public confidence in the examination and of a sense of fair play. At present, Boards differ in their approaches to A level appeals, and it was put to us in evidence that this was unsatisfactory. We certainly believe that it is a matter to be considered carefully and kept under review.

6.18 One possible way of overcoming the present shortcoming would be to create a centralised appeals system. This would entail appeals being considered by a body separate from and possibly independent of the individual Boards. There are, however, difficulties facing such a solution. It would, for example, add an extra layer of bureaucracy. There would be an extensive shuttling of papers between Boards and the central body, and costs would increase. More importantly, it would also distance the judgement in appeal cases from other judgements. The aim of an examination' system should be to obtain consistent judgements, and consistency is hard to obtain when a central body applies its own criteria in individual cases.

6.19 For these reasons we find a central appeals body an unattractive proposition; but we accept that there should be some consistency between Boards. It is unnecessary for Boards to have exactly the same appeals procedure, and indeed forcing Boards to have an identical appeals system could well have repercussions on many other of the Boards' procedures. On the other hand, it should be incumbent on a Board to satisfy a central body that it has appeals procedures which are sufficient to uphold the good name of the A level system as a whole. In our view, that central body should be SEC.

6.20 There may arise occasions when SEC is dissatisfied with the appeals procedures of a Board. In that case, SEC should explain the nature of its concern and seek a change. The issue of appeals is so important that, where discussion has failed to resolve a difference of opinion between SEC and a Board, the former should after consultation be enabled to direct the latter to adopt different procedures. When the result of an appeal has been notified and there is reason to believe that the Board has failed to follow its approved procedures, the centre on behalf of the candidate should be able to approach SEC, which should have the right to investigate the position. In such a case, SEC's responsibilities should be confined to ensuring that the procedures are followed: it should have no power to substitute its own judgement about the grade awarded.

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Information given ...

7.1 At present, A level certificates convey a limited amount of information to candidates, prospective employers and those concerned with admission to higher education. They show the basic subject-titles and the grades obtained. The subject-titles and grades then tend to be used as indicators of capability. Often a minimum standard, in terms of subject and grades, is decided on by an employer or by an institution of higher education, and those who fail to reach the minimum are rejected. The information shown on the certificates is used, therefore, as much to sift out applicants who are unlikely to measure up to the requirements of a company or institution, as to select applicants who can do those things which are to be done.

7.2 For those engaged in it, the sifting process is important. It reduces long application lists to manageable proportions. It helps to prevent individuals who are probably unsuitable from even becoming applicants in the first place. Certificates and the information on them should continue to be capable of being used in this way, rough and ready though it is.

7.3 A basic subject-title and a single grade, however, convey very little about what the candidate has actually done and about how well it was done. In principle, users can refer to Board syllabuses and try to match the information there with the information on the certificates. The personnel departments of large companies and the admissions tutors in institutions of higher education may become knowledgeable about the content of courses and about grading systems. At best, however, this gives only a broad indication of a course of study and a rough guide to a level of achievement. At worst the certificate entries give a vague and ambiguous picture.

should be improved

7.4 The short subject-title should therefore be supplemented by a description of the syllabus. For the purposes to which it is to be put, the description can be brief - say a few lines. It should refer, in particular, to the skills which the course was designed to develop, and, where possible, the kind of information which candidates have been required to handle. The language used should be plain and explicit.

7.5 To this description should be added a reference to the assessment methods used. Again this can be brief. A distinction should be drawn between external and school- or college-based assessments, and between written and other kinds of assessment. As with syllabus descriptions, the language should be plain and explicit.

Recording achievement for all

7.6 At the same time, more information should be given about the candidate's achievements at the point of assessment. In paragraphs 6.15 and 6.16 we have outlined the means by which single grades should be supplemented by a system of profiles of performance. These

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profiles should be recorded on the certificates, together with any necessary explanations about the terms or gradings used. As far as possible, the certificate should be a self-contained record of the strengths and weaknesses of the candidate in each subject attempted.

7.7 We say each subject 'attempted' because a certificate with a profile is likely to convey significant information about each and every candidate, irrespective of the pattern of achievement. With the very able, for example, it will set out the extent to which an A grade is supported by high performance across the board, and with the most able (those with an A grade and an excellent profile) demonstrate their qualities in a way the present system cannot do. Even with those candidates where results are 'ungraded' , the profile will show where, and in what respects, there is merit in their performance. In consequence, certificates should be available for all candidates and cover all subjects attempted.

7.8 Certificates developed on the above lines would be more informative about individuals and more helpful in selection for jobs and for entry into institutions of further and higher education. They would, in addition, help the process of explaining to those outside the education service the nature of A levels and what might be expected of those who have gained them.

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Distinctive features retained

8.1 The syllabus and assessment procedures described above grow out of the characteristic strengths of the existing arrangements. As might be expected with an examination system intended for able students, they are distinctly different from those relating to GCSE and other new assessment systems, though formulated with an awareness of them. We have recommended changes, mainly to increase rigour, motivation, breadth and flexibility, to improve teaching methods and to develop students' skills and attitudes. We have done so while preserving the essential nature of A levels.

8.2 In particular, we have seen as important that candidates should have opportunities for choice. The single-subject examination gives scope for all manner of able students. As long as institutions provide broad and balanced programmes with good counselling systems, the single-subject examination provides much needed flexibility. The move to leaner syllabuses allows for better choice: that is, with an A or A and AS mixture centred on five subjects rather than the three at present, students can choose a broader programme of study. The reduction in the number of syllabuses reduces the potential menu; but the possibility of an increase to five subjects for many students offers the chance of a better diet.

Advice to students

8.3 Students need to be well informed and well advised. We have tackled the issue of information by recommending that there should be published principles for syllabuses. Through these principles, students are likely to have a better idea of the skills and facts that they will be expected to acquire. On the question of advice, we look to a more formal set of arrangements for counselling to encourage students to take a broad and balanced spread of subjects.

8.4 An important feature would be a document of advice. The document would set out general guidance and provide a wide range of specific examples, showing the combinations of subjects which would make for breadth and balance. The preparation of such a document would be supervised by SEC and would involve, among others, representatives of further and higher education and of industry and commerce. The resulting publication should be freely available.

8.5 Schools and colleges should develop and set out publicly their policies on this issue, saying what advice they give to potential A level students. These policies should take account of local as well as national circumstances. Schools and colleges should illustrate, with actual examples, the subject combinations which they can provide and which they recommend. Their policies and examples should be subject to regular review.

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8.6 We are confident that, with this kind of counselling, more students will choose to span the arts/science divide, and we hope that all will do so before long. Already the trend is for a growing proportion to choose a mixture of arts and science subjects. With five-subject options readily available, and with a counselling system which encourages breadth, more students will choose a broader course of study. Encouragement in this direction from employers and from higher education would be helpful.

Teaching time

8.7 We are equally confident that when and where this happens, schools and colleges will have the capacity to respond. There will be a need for some shift of teaching-time from non-examined to examined studies, and there will be an increase in the number of students in many subject groups. The total amount of teaching-time will, however, remain roughly the same. Because many A level teaching groups are quite small, schools and colleges will often be able to provide for the extra student numbers in individual subjects by increasing the size rather than the number of teaching groups. It will still be possible to maintain high standards.

8.8 Teachers will face some new challenges and gain some additional opportunities. The syllabuses will provide scope for better, more interesting teaching. The focus on higher level skills and on making connections between subjects should stimulate fresh thinking; and the written syllabus principles and assessment criteria will provide guidance. Teachers will be able to build on the GCSE experience of students and, as far as assessment goes, benefit from their own and their colleagues' experience of GCSE techniques. Feedback from A levels, both from the internal assessment and from the profile reporting will supply an extra dimension to the process of identifying and removing learning difficulties.

Encouragement for the very able ...

8.9 From the students' point of view, the new arrangements should present an attractive challenge. Through descriptive assessment and profile reporting, for example, the very able will be encouraged to do well in each and every aspect of a broad range of subjects. The gap between A level papers and Special (S) papers will narrow, and the case for keeping the latter for a relatively small number of students will become much weaker. We believe that the market for S papers will dry up rapidly.

and other students

8.10 At the other end of the scale, students finding difficulty with a subject should be encouraged by the prospect of descriptive assessment and the knowledge that whatever strengths they have will be recognised. Increased and timely feedback into the teaching and learning process may help to identify the nature of the difficulty, which is the first step towards overcoming it. For students who leave school or college before the end of a course, but after an internal assessment, there is the opportunity to record what has been achieved.

Records of achievement for all

We look forward to the time when records of achievement are a common feature for students who leave post-16, and foresee the advantages which will arise when the results of an internal assessment can be added to the other information in the record of the student. This is particularly important for those who leave before completing an A level course.

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Programme of work

9.1 Our recommendations entail a substantial programme of work. It should be co-ordinated by SEC which will need funding to act in this role. We anticipate that some of the work will be commissioned by SEC from other agencies such as the GCE Boards and the School Curriculum Development Committee (SCDC) or its successor.


9.2 We envisage that the first task needing to be undertaken will be to turn relevant parts of our report into precisely stated General Principles to govern all A level syllabuses. The second priority will be to generate Subject-specific Principles. These two tasks may run concurrently. Once the two sets of principles have been published the Boards will be required to submit syllabuses for approval under them.

Longer term

9.3 We have identified a number of issues relating, for example, to modular courses and oral assessment where further work is needed. A programme of research, feasibility studies and pilot projects in these areas should be devised, published and set in train by SEC. They should also supervise an investigation, including costing, of a system of accreditation of centres to be carried out by the Boards.

Number of Boards

9.4 Many arguments have been put to us in support of the view that there are too many examining boards in England and Wales, and that this results in wasteful duplication as well as possible confusion. We accept much of the force of these arguments. For example, as we have argued, although there is room for some diversity of approach, the existence of something in the order of 400 syllabuses cannot be defended. We recognise, however, that any attempt to reduce the number of boards even to five, in line with the GCSE groups, would necessarily be a complicated and time-consuming process and would delay action on our main proposals. A more urgent priority is to reduce the number of syllabuses they offer.


9.5 Reducing the number of syllabuses and preventing their seemingly relentless proliferation should result in the reduction of some of the recurrent costs incurred by the examining Boards. It should certainly make for a drastic cut in the number of man-hours given over to maintaining these syllabuses by staff employed in schools, colleges and universities. In cost-benefit terms, the changes we recommend will be advantageous. Teachers in schools and colleges will be more effectively engaged, and as we point out in paragraph 11.3 below, staff in higher education will need to spend less time in establishing a common base for first year students. A level subject entry unit costs should fall.

9.6 The Boards will face initial development costs and some elements of their running costs will rise. There will be significant in-service teacher training costs for Local Education Authorities

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(LEAs) and independent schools in the run-up to the introduction of new style syllabuses at A and AS levels, and some increased costs arising from in-course assessment. As and when the principles of this report are developed and translated into practice it will be necessary to identify, take into account and keep within limits these costs.

Making the system understood

9.7 Many features of the present system are obscure to employers, to some in higher education, to parents and to the general public - as well as to candidates and, in some instances, to those preparing them for the examination. Remedying this for the future involves putting in train a number of measures.

Greater openness

9.8 It will be necessary to make generally available more information about the syllabuses and procedures. Boards are often reluctant to publish crucial pieces of information such as marking schemes; and, although there are some understandable reasons for this, in our view the balance of advantage lies with openness. A strong argument in favour of such openness is the potential it would have for informing, and thereby improving, the teaching and learning process. We also accept the argument that, as a matter of principle, there should be more public accountability through published information.

9.9 An important part of public accountability is that Boards should be able and willing publicly to explain all their procedures. We share some of the concern about the possible consequences of any marked increase in the number of appeals; and we acknowledge that examining is often an inexact process where judgements have to be made which are subject to human error. It is important, however, that confidence in the process should not be misplaced. Credibility should rest upon reasoned assurance, and continuing programmes of scrutiny by SEC will be a contributing factor.

Informative grades and certificates

9.10 The main point of contact with A levels comes, for most people, in the form of grades and certificates. The more information these provide by way, for example, of profile grades or statements, the better use will be made of them. But, in addition, such information will assist in the wider dissemination of understanding of the system as a whole.

Initial and in-service training

9.11 Most importantly, teachers need to know the basis on which their students' performance will be tested and evaluated, and how to use assessment constructively to improve performance in the classroom. This means that their understanding of examining procedures must be more firmly grounded than is often the case at present. It also means that initial and in-service training of teachers must be directed towards raising the overall level of assessment expertise, and some account must be taken of the need to train examiners.


9.12 Finally, the DES and the Welsh Office should initiate a publicity drive in conjunction with various interested parties, and particularly LEAs, SEC, Boards and employers. It is important that employers' organisations should be participants as well as recipients. In particular, such publicity should aim to present A levels in ways which employers would find helpful.

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10.1 We look to the Government to make an early commitment to the principles embodied in this report. Only with that commitment will it be possible to make steady and orderly progress towards a new approach to A levels.

SEC and the Boards

10.2 Responsibility for the detailed planning and implementation of this approach will rest with SEC working in co-operation with the Boards and other agencies. We welcome in particular the assurances given to us by the Boards that they will look constructively upon any new A level arrangements accepted by the Government. A positive and early response from the Boards towards the proposals for syllabus development contained in this report will be crucial. Similarly, their role will be vital in ensuring the careful study of such possibilities as the accreditation of centres.


10.3 We recognise fully the demands which our proposals will make upon the commitment, expertise and time of teachers. We have sought to secure for them a more positive role in the process of A level examining, and we are aware that this role cannot be assumed without the necessary training. At an appropriate stage, therefore, the Government will need to take a lead on teacher training.

First examination in 1994

10.4 Assuming the Government's early acceptance in principle of our proposals, the earliest date at which candidates could sit end-of-course examinations based wholly on the new approach is 1994.

Steps towards 1994 and beyond

10.5 Action leading towards this date, and beyond, should be set in hand as quickly as possible. The necessary steps are identified below:

(a) SEC groups should be established to produce General Principles by mid 1989 and Subject-specific Principles, including common cores, by early 1990.

(b) Such groups (to be financed and serviced by SEC) should be drawn from employers, higher education, teachers in schools and colleges and from the GCE Boards collectively. Invitations to serve on each group should be issued by SEC, which body should also appoint the chairmen.

(c) Responsibility for developing the new AS level syllabuses, which we have identified, should rest with the GeE Boards. We would expect that the groups developing these syllabuses would include both main subject specialists and specialists able to identify the needs of the target student group.

(d) A programme of research and pilot studies on issues identified in this report should be initiated, namely on modules (paragraph 5.17), oral and non-traditional approaches and improved forms of

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assessment (paragraphs 6.1, 6.2 and 6.4), assessment criteria (paragraph 6.7), accreditation (paragraph 6.11), profile reporting and profile marking (paragraphs 6.15 and 6.16), development of new certificates (paragraph 7.8), student counselling (paragraphs 8.3 and 8.4), records of achievement for post-If students (paragraph 8.10).

(e) By mid 1990 a start should be made on the development of teacher training programmes.

(f) By the beginning of 1991 Boards should have submitted all syllabuses for SEC approval. As part of the process of reducing the number of syllabuses on offer, we anticipate that a Board would have to offer strong justification for submitting for approval more than one syllabus under a given subject title, and that many syllabuses would be submitted by one Board for use on a shared inter-Board basis. We anticipate also that all syllabuses would have to satisfy both General and Subject-specific Principles. An appropriate mechanism will be required to achieve this. It may be, for example, that the brief for subject-specific groups will have to allow for some flexibility of interpretation; and that Boards may choose under which Subject-specific Principles to submit a syllabus where this is not immediately obvious.

(g) By the beginning of the academic year 1991-2 SEC should have approved those syllabuses which will be examined in 1994.

(h) By the beginning of the academic year 1992-3 the new syllabuses will be in use in schools and colleges.

The interim period

10.6 Our proposals will, we believe, introduce a greater measure of coherence into students' education and training both before and after the A level stage. We are very aware, however, that for the next six years at least, students will be embarking upon the present A levels having had experience of GCSE courses, and that such coherence and continuity may well be limited. In addition to the steps already taken to minimise any discrepancy, we urge that SEC and the Boards take as many measures as are practicable to prepare for the new approach in advance of the timetable set out in paragraph 10.5 above, for example in relation to procedures and openness. We would expect, for example, any new syllabus proposals to be very carefully scrutinised in the light of our recommendations.

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An improved system ...

11.1 Adoption of the principles and practices outlined above will do much to improve the A level system. Students, teachers, employers and institutions of higher education will all benefit. The more attractive, flexible programme offered will tempt more people to stay in full-time education and, later, become involved in continuing education. The more demanding nature of the new system will not of itself be a deterrent; young people enjoy a challenge, especially when the rewards are seen to be high, and will rise to it.

without lengthening of courses

11.2 It was put to us by some that any significant change in A level demands could have a knock-on effect in higher education, and that in some circumstances a four-year degree course might be needed. The last point was put by very few, and the weight of evidence was against it. Reflecting the views of one of the country's largest companies, one piece of evidence argued strongly against the proposition that the present specialisation, particularly in the physical sciences and engineering, is necessary if the UK three-year degree pattern is to be maintained.

"Present degree courses in physical sciences and engineering are heavily loaded with technical material and aim to bring students to the 'frontiers of knowledge' in the final year - such courses are well suited for aspiring research workers and have been designed with this need in mind. We do not question the need to maintain a supply of such research workers - indeed our own research laboratories are a major employer of such graduates. But the situation must be seen as a whole. We recruit about 1500 graduates per year, the majority with degrees in a physical science or an engineering discipline. Only about 200 are recruited for work which can be described as research. The remainder are engaged on a very wide variety of tasks which require a good technical understanding but not at the specialist level of final year honours degrees. For this group, recruiters are concerned that the staff they select are capable of solving problems and have good personal skills, rather than having specialised knowledge. The increasing demand for graduates is for broadly based individuals, combining a knowledge of a specialised discipline with skills associated with business. Broadly based sixth form studies followed by less specialised degrees would be a more effective educational preparation than our present pattern offers."
Another and equally strong submission was as follows:
"Ever since I was a don at Cambridge I have never been able to accept the argument that unless school knowledge in particular subjects reaches a certain level the courses in those subjects at universities must be lengthened in time. I make this comment firstly on the grounds of experience and secondly because of the nature of science. My experience was that there was a long tradition in Cambridge of taking people who had no prior preparation in the particular subject and bringing them up to degree level within the three years. Provided they had powers of accurate

[page 36]

observation and were habituated to logical thought such students could, with a little help during their first term, catch up with and often overtake those who had been carefully prepared for entrance. The argument based on the nature of science is that if a scientific subject is really advancing then old theories are replaced by more comprehensive theories, thus relieving the student of the necessity of learning a lot of old material. Alas dons rarely prune their courses sufficiently."
With the changes we propose we can see no case for the general lengthening of first degree courses.

11.3 More rigour, greater concentration on higher level skills, fewer syllabuses and more common cores - these, and many other aspects of the developments we recommend will be helpful to higher education. Their effect will be to reduce the effort which goes into the first year of a degree course in establishing common ground between undergraduates. They will help to ensure that students embarking on a degree course will have a secure grasp of essentials before they are called upon to meet new challenges and will have a capacity for independent learning.

Continuity and compatibility

11.4 We emphasise again however, as we did at the outset, the need for continuity and compatibility of A levels with other provision for the 16-19 age group, such as BTEC, the City and Guilds of London Institute (CGLI) and the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). Responsibility for ensuring that this need is met would seem to lie with the National Council for Vocational Qualifications (NCVQ) working with SEC.

Looking ahead

11.5 In 1992, when further barriers between member states of the European Community are removed, the United Kingdom will be faced with new business competition and opportunities. This country will need in extra measure those qualities which make it respected and able to prosper. Employers will depend increasingly on people who can think, understand and act. They will rely more heavily on those who can apply themselves effectively to a range of tasks, who can speak other languages and who can work with confidence and independence. A levels must, and when the measures above are introduced will, make their contribution to the full. At the same time, the system must respond to the talents and circumstances of the student. A free society depends for its strength on the ability of individual members to make sense of their surroundings and think for themselves. We are confident that the new arrangements described in this report will meet the needs of the country and of its students.

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Dr GR Higginson
Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton


Miss S Beesley
Journalist and broadcaster

Sir Roy Harding CBE
General Secretary of the Society of Education Officers
Former Chief Education Officer of Buckinghamshire
Former Vice-Chairman of the Secondary Examinations Council

Mr GK Leech
Headmaster of Range High School, Formby

Mr MM Nicolson
Manager, Barclays Bank pic
Chairman of the CBI Under-35s Group 1986-87


Mr BL Baish
Mr JA Hamer HMI
Miss EMA Moss

[page 39]


"In the light of the Government's commitment to retain General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level Examinations as an essential means for setting standards of excellence, and with the aim of maintaining or improving the present character and rigorous standards of these examinations:

To recommend the principles that should govern GCE A Level syllabuses and their assessment, so that consistency in the essential content and the assessment of subjects is secured:

To set out a plan of action for the subsequent detailed professional work required to give effect to these recommendations."

[page 41]


Oral evidence was presented by the following groups and individuals:

Business & Technician Education Council
A group from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, Secondary Heads Association, Headmasters' Conference and Girls' School Association
HM Inspectorate
HM Inspectorate in Wales and WJEC
HMCI Mr D W Mack, Scottish Education Department
National Association of Head Teachers
National Council for Vocational Qualifications
National Union of Students
Secondary Examinations Council
Secretaries to the GCE Boards
School Curriculum Development Committee
TVEI Unit of the Manpower Services Commission
Professor R Blin-Stoyle
Miss S Browne
Sir Clifford Butler
Sir Wilfred Cockcroft
The Lord Dainton

Written evidence was received from the following organisations and individuals:

Agricultural Training Board
Professor J AIIanson
Mr W F Archenhold
Professor J M Ashworth
Assistant Masters and Mistresses Association
Association for Science Education Association of Advisers in COT
Association of British Chambers of Commerce
Association of Colleges of Further and Higher Education
Association of County Councils
Association of Higher Education Institutions Concerned with Home Economics
Association of Metropolitan Authorities
Association of Polytechnic Teachers
Association of University Teachers
Mr A J Baker
Mr C J E Ball
Professor A F Bance
Professor G A Barnard
Dr G E Beechey
Mr I S Beer
Mr G W Bernard Mr P Biggs
Mr M Billingham and staff at Parmiters School
Professor E Blake
Professor Sir Herman Bondi
Professor A M Bourn

[page 42]

British Association for Commercial and Industrial Education
British Federation of Music Festivals
British Institute of Management
British Psychological Society
Professor J Brown
Professor C J Brumfit
Dr C L Brundin
Mr W G Burton
Business & Technician Education Council
Professor R Butterfield
Professor PAR Calvert
Careers Research and Advisory Council
Mr T A Carter
Centre for Policy Studies
Professor R G Chambers
Professor C B Chapman
City Polytechnic, Hong Kong
City and Guilds of London Institute
Dr J Clark
Clothing and Allied Products Industry Board
Commission for Racial Equality
Committee of Directors of Polytechnics
Confederation of British Industry
Construction Industry Training Board
Council for National Academic Awards
Mr A S Cox
The Lord Dainton
Mr C David
Mr M Davies and Mr J Wilkins
Mr C Dobson
Dr S W Dolan
Miss A Dreydel
East Midlands Regional Examinations Board
Economics Association
Educational Institute of Design, Craft and Technology
Mrs V Ellis
Engineering Council
Engineering Industry Training Board
English Association
Professor K M Entwistle
Equal Opportunities Commission
Professor P H Evans
Faculty Board of Mathematics, University of Cambridge
Professor R A Farrar
The Lord Flowers
Mr P O Fullbrook
Further Education Unit
Professor M A Gale
General Medical Council
General Synod of the Church of England, Board of Education
Geographical Association
Girls Public Day School Trust
Girls School Association
Mr L P Grice

[page 43]

Mr A J Griff
Professor H B Griffiths
Mr J S Grove
Professor J L Hall
Professor P Hammond
Mr J F Hancock
Mr M Harrison
Dr L S Hart and other staff at University of Bristol
Miss E F Haywood
Headmasters' Conference
Mr A Hedges
Mr W Hele
Professor L J Herbst
Dr G C Higby
Professor K Hillier
Dr G J Hills
Historical Association
Professor A G Howson
Incorporated Society of Musicians
Institute of Agricultural Engineers
Institute of Home Economics
Institute of Mathematics and its Applications
Institute of Statisticians
International Baccalaureat Office
Joint Association of Classical Teachers
Joint Council of Language Associations
Joint Matriculation Board
Professor M H Kelly
Professor P J Kelly
Mrs JAG Kennedy
Dr D J Keohane
Mr H Kingland
Mr E Leigh
Mr P S Linklater
Mr G Locke
Professor A P M Lockwood
Mr J W Longden
Dr E J MacFarlane
Mr M Malthouse
Manchester Polytechnic
Manpower Services Commission
Professor A R Manser
Mrs C Mar-Molinero
Mathematical Association
Mr J C Matthews and Mr P Threlfall
Mr M H May
Mechanics in Action Project
Methodist Church
Mr R Mitchell
Modern Language Association
Music Advisers National Association
Music Masters and Mistresses Association

[page 44]

National Association for the Teaching of English
National Association of Advisers and Inspectors of Business and Economics Education
National Association of Advisers in English
National Association of Head Teachers
National Association of Mathematics Advisers
National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers
National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education
National Association of the Teachers of Wales
National Association of Teachers in Home Economics
National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations
National Council for Vocational Qualifications
National Institute of Adult Continuing Education
National Institute of Adult Education
National Society for Education in Art and Design National Union of Students
National Union of Teachers
Mr H Neill
Professor B Newbould
Dr B Nicholson
North Regional Examinations Board
Northamptonshire Headteachers
Northamptonshire Schools' Inspectors
Northern Examining Association
Northern Ireland Schools Examinations Council
Northumberland County Council
Open University
Dr W J Overton
Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations
Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examinations Board
Dr O E Packham
Sir Edward Parkes
Professor J Parnaby
Canon P Pilkington, Mr A C F Verity and Mr R M Reeve
Pitman's Examinations Institute
Professor R Plant
Professor CPS Platt
Professor A Pollard
Professional Association of Teachers
Professional Council for Religious Education
Sir Randolph Quirk
Professor H O Rankin
Registrar, University of Leeds
Registrar, University of Oxford
Mr P Reynolds
Road Transport Industry Board
Mr D H Roberts
Royal Society of Arts
Royal Society of Chemistry
School Curriculum and Development Committee
School Mathematics Project
Schools Music Association
Professor R L E Schwarzenberger

[page 45]

Secondary Examinations Council
Secondary Heads Association
Secondary Science Curriculum Review
Mr J M Sennett
Service Children's Education Authority
Professor R J Small
Mr O A G Smith
Mr K O Smith
Professor P Smith
Professor A Smithers and Dr P Robinson
Socialist Education Association
Society of Education Officers
South Bank Polytechnic
Southern Universities Joint Board
Staff of King George V College, Southport
Standing Conference of Tertiary and Sixth Form College Principals
Standing Conference on Schools' Science and Technology
Standing Conference on University Entrance/Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals
Steering Committee of the TVEI Accreditation Project
Mr I H Stevens
Mr M Storm
Sir Peter Swinnerton-Dyer
Mrs P M C Taylor
Teachers Evaluating and Assessing Mathematics Group
Tertiary Colleges Association
Thames Polytechnic
The Royal Society
Mr O H Thompsett
Mr M A Thorpe
Professor J Tomlinson
Mr K Turner
TVEI Centre, Oxfordshire
University College of Wales, Aberystwyth
University of Bath
University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate
University of Cambridge
University of London School Examinations Board
University of London, Institute of Education, Curriculum Studies Department
Mr P Vennis
Mr P C Warner
Welsh College of Music and Drama
Welsh Joint Education Committee
West Midlands Examinations Board
Professor R G White
Miss I Whittaker
Mrs C M Wilding
Professor A F W Willoughby
Reverend T Wright
Yorkshire and Humberside Association for Further and Higher Education
Yorkshire and Humberside Regional Examinations Board

[page 47]


Except where otherwise stated, references in the text are covered in DES and WOED published statistics.




[page 48]


[Note The following note was on a slip of paper glued inside the front cover of the report:


Page 48, Table 3

In the column headed 'Boys', the number of subject entries for Sociology should read 4,871; for Other social science or vocational 9,475; and for General studies 23,024.]

[page 49]


[page 51]


A levelAdvanced level
AS levelAdvanced Supplementary level
BTECBusiness & Technician Education Council
CGLICity and Guilds of London Institute
DESDepartment of Education and Science
GCEGeneral Certificate of Education
GCSEGeneral Certificate of Secondary Education
HMIHer Majesty's Inspector
LEALocal Education Authority
NCVQNational Council for Vocational Qualifications
RSARoyal Society for the encouragement of Arts Manufactures and Commerce
SCDCSchool Curriculum Development Committee
SECSecondary Examinations Council
TVEITechnical and Vocational Education Initiative