Resist route to 'Lego learning'

26th December 1997, 12:00am
Nicolas Barnard


Resist route to 'Lego learning'
New Zealand conducted an experiment on behalf of the world. It failed. Nicolas Barnard reports

Mix-and-match modular qualifications have failed in New Zealand and will fail here, the Government is being warned.

New Zealand's attempt to unify post-14 education has been a trailblazing experiment which takes the modularisation pioneered in Britain further than anywhere else. But it does not work, Professor Alan Smithers of Brunel University says.

He says ministers must resist pressure from the further education sector to go down the same road - in particular to create an over-arching post-16 qualification made up of units from different courses.

Professor Smithers, director of the centre for education and employment research, was commissioned by the Education Forum, a New Zealand pressure group, to report on that country's national qualifications framework.

The framework - described by Professor Smithers as an experiment conducted on behalf of the world - saw qualifications from New Zealand's equivalent of GCSE to university degree divided into modules of varying levels which could in theory be mixed and matched.

Professor Smithers said that in practice, the modules or units were not interchangeable, so instead of there being fewer units than qualifications the reverse was true. And while the number of units had exploded, fewer people were gaining qualifications.

The units were also ill-defined, leaving too much to teachers' interpretation. Attempts to impose common standards led to a huge increase in bureaucracy and teachers' workload which provoked an outcry from the profession. Higher education also resisted the change.

Professor Smithers called modules a kind of "educational Lego" and said: "New Zealand offers a serious warning. Modularisation is not a philosopher's stone which will enable you to transform all of education and training at a stroke. "

They were good for some qualifications, he agreed, but "at A-level you need to ask yourself what these qualifications are stepping stones to and how can we achieve coherence of understanding".

Labour will have to grasp the nettle of modularisation as it prepares its long-awaited reform of post-16 education in the new year - 10 years on from the Higginson Report which called for a radical overhaul of A-levels, and two years after the Dearing Report suggested an overarching diploma.

David Blunkett, the Education and Employment Secretary, is keen to see young people mixing vocational and academic qualifications. And the Government is already committed to broadening A-levels, encouraging more young people to continue into further education and introducing some element of core skills - communication, team working and information technology.

A growing alliance of professionals and academics in further education says that this makes modularisation and a single advanced certificate inevitable. That view has been backed up in the massive response to the Government's post-16 consultation document Qualifying for Success.

Last week saw the London Institute of Education's submission, calling for A-levels to be redesigned into three AS blocks alongside GNVQs which are already made up of 12 modules. Students would be able to take elements of each and create their own overarching certificate.

The pressure extends to higher education, where FE colleges and independent schools in particular, want more scope to begin teaching university courses in the sixth form.

Judith Norrington, director of curriculum and quality at the Association of Colleges, said problems with the New Zealand system did not mean the concept itself was bad. "We need to build ourselves a model that allows it to work. "

Individual units could be updated to meet changing needs instead of redesigning the entire qualification."I don't think anyone is arguing that you could pick and mix units off the shelf. We're arguing for coherent groups of units."

A national framework offered the only way of creating qualifications flexible and adaptable enough to meet a changing workplace, she said. "It is the way forward to meet our needs as a nation."

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