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Sector News, 17 - 21 August 2009

'Dumbed down' A-level under fire as pass rates soar. The Guardian, 17 August 2009.

The Conservative party has stated its plans for A-levels and GCSEs which it will put into effect if it wins the next election.  The Conservative party have threatened an overhaul of the A-level system to improve what they see as falling standards.  They could also remove vocational diplomas, which they see as inferior to A-levels.  Whilst the number of  A-level passes have been rising, the number of passes in the International Baccalaureate have remained the same; this is seen as proof of falling standards at A level.  As a statement on shadow policy, this story has attracted the attention of a number of newspapers,  The Independent covers the story under “Tories want to promote science in league tables”, The Times under “Tories review points system to end ‘dumbing down of education” and the Daily Telegraph uses the headline ”A-levels 'to be toughened' under Conservatives”.

Student debt 'will soar to £23,500'. Daily Telegraph, 17 August 2009.

In a rather gloomy report, the Daily Telegraph says that students leaving university will take with them a debt of up to £23,500.  The figure, supported by BBC news, is in part put down to an expected 10 per cent rise in the cost of higher education.

The story also appears in The Independent as A degree will leave you with debts of £23,500”.

Universities back part-time study as applications soar.  The Independent, 17 August 2009.

As a result of the squeeze on university places this year, thousands of A-level candidates will be offered places on part-time degree courses.  “UCAS, the admissions service, will for the first time offer details of all part-time degree courses online as up to 60,000 applicants for full-time courses face rejection this summer”.

‘Desperately hoping it goes well’.  Education Guardian, 18 August 2009.

Report of interviews with a number of A-level students who are naturally concerned about their future.

A-level results. 20 August 2009.

It’s that time of year again, with most of the major newspapers reporting on the latest round of A-level results.  Articles vary from the generally congratulatory Daily Telegraph “A-levels: students celebrate record results”, to the somewhat critical Daily Mail’s ”Teenagers score record A-level results as pass rate rises for 27th year in a row” .  All in all A to E passes increased by 0.3 per cent, A grade passes increased to 26.7 per cent from 25.9 per cent last year and girls still outperform boys although the gap is closing.   Traditional subjects such as Maths and English are still at the top of student choices followed by Biology.  However, despite a rise in Spanish, modern languages continue to decline.

The ‘down side’ of this success is that it adds to the difficulty for students of finding places in HE. There have been more applicants than places for a number of years but this year the situation is worse, a fact made clear in The Independent’s story “Record scramble for university courses” and the Times Higher Education’s “Congratulations, now hurry up and wait

The critics have said once again that the figures prove how easy A-levels have become, citing, amongst other reasons, a push by comprehensives to put students in for ‘softer’ A-levels. 

The Guardian covers this story under – “One in four A-levels passed at grade A”, and the Daily Mirror - "'Record number' of A-level passes”.

Friday’s TES story “A-level results continue inexorable rise with record 97.5 per cent pass rate”, give a more detailed look at the statistics behind the results.  It shows English. Maths and Biology as the top three ranking subjects of choice, the paper also shows that over 45 percent of Maths students gained an A grade.  In keeping with other newspapers, there is a report that the Tories want to introduce league table points that would penalise soft subjects such as media studies and dance.

Scarred for life? THE, 20 August 2009.

Admissions tutors at universities are more worried than normal about the prospects of tens of thousands of students who may not get a place at university this year.  With the job market in a parlous state there are fears that many well qualified young people will gain little more for their efforts than a place on the list of the long term unemployed.   Adding to the woes, the job market situation will make it difficult for this year’s graduates to obtain employment, adding further misery on the top of the £9,000 fee-related debt that most of them will have created during their academic life.   Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that 17 percent of 18 to 24 year olds are unemployed.

See also leader – “Anthem for doomed youth”, and “Universities go the extra mile during this year's clearing”.

Other articles in this weeks THE;

Forget me not”, academics write their own obituaries,

Unsuitable candidates”; a look at why some of the great minds of the past would not be accepted by universities today.

Calls to raise entry criteria for trainee teachers.  THE, 20 August 2009.

Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson of the University of Buckingham who produce "The Good Teacher Training Guide", say that “wasted effort and resources could be reduced if entry requirements were raised”.  It is widely reported that less than 60 per cent of the applicants for teacher training courses have more than two A-levels and that the number of good graduate applicants is below the national average.  The report goes on to say that there is a large drop-out from these courses.

Dummies' guides to teaching insult our intelligence,  THE, 20 August 2009.

Opinion: Joao Magueijo, professor in the Theoretical Physics Group, Imperial College London.

Clearly Joao did not enjoy his experience of teacher training.  In this article he condemns what he sees as teacher training which is unfit for purpose.  

CIHE's expansion to bring members to the fore.  THE, 20 August 2009.

“In the past, the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) operated as a think-tank, with a small number of staff directing research and liaising with a membership of senior figures from both sectors”.  CIHE is now considering re-organising its systems to include practitioners from commerce and industry.

Think-tank urges end to 'injustice' for part-timers.  THE, 20 August 2009.

“In a new report, Policy Exchange, which has links to the Conservative Party, describes funding for part-time students as "one of the greatest and most glossed-over injustices in the English higher education system"”.  The “think tank” believes that much could be done to improve the lot of part-time students and that more funding placed in the part-time budget could alleviate some of the difficulties of over application to universities this year. Money should be diverted from the Government's University Challenge programme (which it sees as a waste of money) to bring the part-time system in line with full-time student support: those with a household income of up to £50,000 would be entitled to a partial tuition fee grant.

 Teacher training league tables raises concern over quality of courses.  TES, 21 August 2009.

Following on from the stories in the THE of 20th August (above), Oxford, Cambridge and Exeter top the league tables for teacher training.

Capital hope for sixth forms.  TES, FE Focus, 21 August 2009.

In a move which counters the disappointment of some colleges over the LSC capital funding debacle, the Government has said that sixth from colleges will be able to tap into funding from the Building Schools for the Future programme (BSF).  However, there are growing fears about the affordability of the BSF scheme.  Mark Bramwell, chairman of the Sixth Form Colleges Forum, said “It is to be welcomed because of the disappointments over the college capital scheme ….we have to find a way of ring fencing some of the BSF money to meet the well founded needs of sixth from colleges.

College ‘labs' to boost research.  TES, FE Focus, 21 August 2009.

A project to test experimental teaching tools and techniques is to begin in four volunteer colleges, Loughborough, Sussex Downs, Stoke and Kingsland Skills and Enterprise Centre Bedford.  It is hoped that labs created in these colleges will mean FE teachers become more involved in the research into post sixteen education.  The Learning and Skills Improvement Service (LSIS), the body responsible for the idea, are looking for other volunteers.  LSIS want to carry out evidence reviews as well as putting research into practice, it also wants to promote research such as last year’s Ofsted report “How Colleges Improve”.

FE milieu could help raise pupils’ GCSE results.  TES, FE Focus, 21 August 2009.

In a second evaluation of Diploma teaching, Ofsted found one  example of a 10 per cent improvement in the numbers of students gaining five good GCSEs.    Admitting that it is difficult to link GCSE equivalent success to changes in provision, new vocational courses were clearly a contributing factor.  

A federation of colleges would help our sector to ‘come of age’.  TES, FE Focus, 21 August 2009.

Opinion: Asha Khemka OBE, Principal and CEO, West Nottinghamshire College.

Asha lays out her vision for a federation of colleges to meet the challenges of modern Britain.  The vision is not one of merger, rather one of formally bonded colleges acting in a collaborative structure led by a small executive board and administrative hub.  She sees the possibility of removing duplication and competition between colleges,  creating specialist vocational centres and establishment of HE centres in areas where progression is particularly low.   Additional, Asha believes that such a federation would be better placed to negotiate with national and local governing bodies.