THE SECRETARY of State's speech to the North of England conference this year may come to be seen as a milestone, not so much for the heavily-trailed measures to improve school performance at key stage 3, as for the item on post-14 education.
This part of David Blunkett's speech of 2000, like Keith Joseph's 1984 speech to the same conference, sketched out radical changes for the qualifications system.
The 14-19 time-frame in Blunkett's speech was itself notable. It was mentioned in the Labour party's 1996 policy document, Aiming Higher, but has been conspicuously absent from government policies on KS4 and post-16 education. They have disappointingly, been treated as separate entities, with lifelong learning being regarded as yet another category in policy terms.
In his Wigan speech, David Blunkett called for "more imaginative provision for 14 to 19", with "a growing range of pathways through that phase" as a "crucial foundation for lifelong learning". He acknowledged that "all will be involved in education from 14 to 19".
He said that much greater diversity would become possible, but his examples of diversity were hardly imaginative and there is clearly some distance for government thinking to travel if his vision of post-14 education for all is to be realised.
The logical and sensible consequence of the Wigan speech is to end the national curriculum at age 14 and introduce a coherent and integrated qualifications programme from 14, as many people have been advocating for several years. The present disjuncture between KS4 and the post-16 courses and qualifications serves no purpose, other than to give an unfortunate emphasis to the age of 16 as an educational endpoint. As Blunkett's speech reflected, we are rapidly moving towards a situation where 18 is the de facto leaving age from full-time education and the big bang GCSE examination system at 16 is becoming increasingly irrelevant.
The Blunkett vision fell well short of a strategy, but it would be unrealistic to have expected a complete picture at this stage. What is needed to give substance to the vision is a unified system of qualifications, in which there is no artificial division between the academic and the vocational. Students would be guided along curriculum paths that bring coherence and purpose to their studies and ambitions.
One of the greatest benefits of this would be an end to the age-relatedness of qualifications, since students would take eneral level (equivalent to GCSE) examinations when they are ready for them. Under the present system, young people are seen as successful if they obtain GCSE passes at 16, and failures if they don't.
By sweeping away the age-16 barrier and introducing a framework of modular courses from 14, the system would enable young people to build their portfolio of qualifications, not only through the 14-19 years, but all their lives. Advanced level courses, normally taken when General level studies are complete, would not have to be taken at age 18 and many would take them at 17 or 19, or much later in life. The issue of age, now reinforced by performance tables for 16 and 18-year-olds, would disappear without mourning.
Within a unified qualifications framework, modular courses of many different types can be taken. The Secretary of State's vision brings closer the time when the division between the school and the workplace blurs. Individual learning plans, which match abilities with interests for all young people over 14, would include courses in schools and colleges, as well as workplace experience. With a greater variety of courses and patterns of study, the schools will become learning centres for their local communities.
Nick Tate's TES article last week concentrated on the current reforms to post-16 education and the concerns which have been expressed about the standard of A-level and its suitability as a test for the most able students. He clearly recognised the limited extent of the current A-level reforms and the scope for the Government to take them further. They have certainly not gone far enough to allow individual schools to construct their own baccalaureate courses, as he suggests, until the universities give a clear message that breadth of study is welcomed.
The recent review of the national curriculum by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority was also very limited in scope. The review's recommendations for KS4 were piecemeal and took little account of the next stage of education. The qualifications debate should be much wider than this.
Secondary school and college leaders have supported the A and AS reforms because they represent a small, but important, step in the direction of a modular, unified qualifications framework of the type described above. Potentially, David Blunkett's Wigan speech goes well beyond the current reforms at both KS4 and post-16 and the emphasis on the 14-19 age cohort indicates that a more coherent pattern of qualifications may emerge in the future.
John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association and chairs the Joint Associations Curriculum Group