Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Vive le baccalauréat

Mortar board and bread

Much as it pains him as an Englishman to recognise a Napoleonic achievement, Don Lillistone says we have much to learn from the French qualification.

Established by Napoleon in March 1808, the baccalauréat will shortly mark its bi-centenary.

It is a qualification of the state. The education ministry administers the examinations while the national inspectorate establishes the teaching programmes and sets the papers. Teachers mark the papers as part of their professional duties (much as recommended by ASCL in its policy statement on chartered examiners) and are released from teaching to do so - unlike the 'cottage industry' in England, to use QCA head Ken Boston's description.

There is, therefore, transparency about what is to be assessed and how; teachers in France have, accordingly, always been able to provide their students with accurate information about what is required of them in their examinations.

With A level, by contrast, it is only since the 1990s that what was called the 'cloak of secrecy' around the examination boards - peculiarly English institutions - has been lifted. Previously, mark schemes and grade boundaries were inexplicably considered by the boards to be 'confidential' and the detail in most syllabuses was poor, in stark contrast with those of today.

One of the major contributing factors in recent improved performance at A level is the transparency we now enjoy. The 'cloak of secrecy' ought to be consigned to a Black Museum of Educational Bad Practice.

It is sometimes claimed that examination boards can provide greater public confidence than a state qualification. In fact, the opposite is the case. While there is evidence of improving standards in England, the work of authorities such as Professor Sir Peter Williams indicates a fall in absolute A level standards over the past two decades.

The pass rate has risen annually for the past 25 years, prompting media frenzy about 'dumbing down', and it was refreshing to note the honesty of Simon Lebus, group chief executive of Cambridge Assessment, in his November 2007 speech to the QCA in which he stated:

"We all - QCA, the awarding bodies, politicians and DCSF in its various guises - have been remiss in not being readier to debate the impact of changes in A level, perhaps not least because we may not have felt a need to do so operating within a culture where there has been an expectation of consistently improving levels of attainment."

In France, the contrast is striking. The pass rate for the baccalauréat has sometimes fallen and the proportion of the age cohort achieving the qualification has increased by only 1.1 per cent over the past ten years.

In addition, the baccalauréat is significantly more cost-effective than the English examination system. In 2006, it cost just over £28m which, as earlier assessments are entrusted to teachers, is effectively the total cost of the national French school examination system. In comparison, the English system costs around £250m annually and the most recent annual accounts for the three examination boards show combined 'profits' in excess of £40m.

Moreover, the baccalauréat provides a breadth of educational experience that is missing in England. All of the general baccalauréats - the scientific, the literary and the economic and social - are based on a philosophical understanding of the forms of knowledge that underpin education. Each requires the study of mathematics, French, two foreign languages, philosophy, PE and civic education in addition to the primary focus, such as physics, chemistry and life and earth sciences or engineering sciences for the scientific baccalauréat.

By contrast, A levels - which were introduced in 1951 for the pragmatic reason that they provide single subject accreditation - are not founded on any philosophical understanding of what education is.

There is no greater compliment than imitation. When Tony Blair announced that he wanted at least one provider of the International Baccalaureate in every local authority by 2010, he was promoting was has been called the 'little brother' of the French baccalauréat.

The same understanding of breadth of learning experience underpinned the development of the 'technological' baccalauréat in 1968 and of the 'vocational' baccalauréats in 1985. Our ministers are wrong in describing the 14-19 diplomas as radically new. They have been operating successfully in France for decades.

The French would no more abandon the baccalauréat than they would dismantle the Eiffel Tower. A level, on the other hand, is under threat from alternative qualifications such as OCR's Pre-U as well as the IB and the diplomas. It is more likely that the baccalauréat will celebrate its third centenary than that the A level will reach its first.

Don Lillistone is principal of St Mary's College, Middlesbrough

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