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14-plus revolution looms

Government's chief adviser leaves door open to European-style exam, reports Nicholas Pyke. A revolutionary system of tertiary education for all children from the age of 14, administered by a new National Qualifications Authority, is proposed by the Government's chief adviser, Sir Ron Dearing.

The School Curriculum and Assessment Authority would lose responsibility for pupils beyond 14. It would cede control of public exams, including GCSE, A-levels and vocational qualifications.

The latest draft of Sir Ron's long-awaited report on 16-19 education would allow 14-year-olds to leave school and choose college-based vocational courses. They also introduce a series of co-ordinated qualifications for students in school, college and training.

Despite Government pressure to keep the "gold standard" of A-level, Sir Ron has managed to leave the door open to a possible European-style baccalaureate by putting all exams under the same umbrella. The Government has so far opposed all calls to replace A-levels with a baccalaureate.

His recommendations may shift the balance of secondary education, creating a major staging post at 14-plus where pupils could decide on a new school as well as a new direction. It could also pave the way for schools to specialise at 14.

There is certain to be renewed fighting between the academic and vocational lobbies over whether exams or "competence" tests are the way forward (see Alan Smithers, page 20) for the new authority which would embrace both SCAA and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.

Sir Ron also proposes to stiffen up sixth-form studies with a new emphasis on the S-level (harder than A-level) for university candidates. He also wants exceptional students to take part of their future degree courses while still at school.

Alarmed by research showing that arts A-levels are easier than those in maths and science, Sir Ron will recommend that standards in the arts be raised. The current disparity, he believes, dissuades many sixth-formers from taking maths or science and damages the supply of teachers in these subjects.

The draft of Sir Ron's report, due to be published in final form at the end of March, suggests two options for SCAA - of which he is the chairman - and the NCVQ.

The first is a straight merger. Closer working has already been introduced with this week's announcement of new, joint members of both quangos and a new joint committee (see page 3).

The second is to split the curriculum at 14, the age at which SCAA's responsibilities would end, and involve both SCAA and the NCVQ in a new National Qualifications Authority for 14 to 19-year-olds.

One important change pushed by Dearing will be the attempt to improve Youth Training. As reported in last week's TES, the new "national traineeship" will insist on an element of college education and will offer every student the chance of a national vocational qualification. Many employers currently refuse to pay for youngsters to train or take the exam.

The post-14 system would be co-ordinated so that all qualifications will be tiered as entry, foundation, intermediate or advanced level. Advanced GNVQs will be renamed "applied A-levels" in an attempt to win them respect.

Several questions remain about these latest proposals. There is concern about the new demands on colleges, already struggling with tight budgets. A spokeswoman from the Association for Colleges welcomed the prospect of new entrants. But she warned against expecting colleges to tackle a national problem single-handedly. "I hope this is a thorough review and not merely tinkering. It's obvious that if the Government wants the colleges to solve a problem that they haven't solved themselves, it must ensure that colleges have the necessary teaching and resources."

A new place for S-levels, currently unpopular, could create a third exam tier. If a baccalaureate were to replace A-levels, the S-level would be in place as an additional university entrance exam..

Sir Ron's conclusions about sixth-form studies will overlap with his new review of higher education. Faced with pressure from universities for longer degree courses, one solution is to extend them downwards into the sixth form.

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