Ross Clark Ross Clark

Making the grade

Are A levels really so bad, wonders Ross Clark? And is the International Baccalaureate the best alternative?

 In Switzerland, declared Harry Lime in The Third Man, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock. He would now surely have added the International Baccalaureate. There is no Swiss product which rates so highly with the British middle classes. Certainly not Nescafé, not in an age of filter machines. Not Emmental cheese and not Lindt chocolate.

The accepted wisdom is that while our own A levels have become watered down to the point of meaninglessness, the bac is still there to stretch pupils, just like in the good old days when schoolboys all wore blazers and caps and their masters flapped around dusty classrooms with gowns, mortarboards and canes.
The bac has spread far beyond the trendy private schools which began offering it 20 years ago. There are currently 149 state schools to offer it, with another 11 having applied to do so. It is widely accepted by universities, and in February the Royal Society appeared to endorse the move to the bac, describing A levels as ‘no longer fit for purpose’. Tony Blair also supported the bac, offering money to state schools to make the switch. This is perhaps not surprising: in spite of its appeal to traditionalists, the bac’s mission statement could be drawn straight from New Labour: ‘The International Baccalaureate aims to develop inquiring, knowledgeable and caring young people who help to create a better and more peaceful world through intercultural understanding and respect.’

But are A levels really so inferior? While the bac has been enthusiastically endorsed by state schools and is taken at some of the best-known independent schools including Charterhouse, Wellington College and Tony Blair’s alma mater, Fettes, it is significant that many more private schools have declined to adopt it. Eton, St Paul’s and Manchester Grammar, to name but three, are not on the list of bac schools.

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