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Colleges call for pick and mix choice review

Colleges have rejected three options from Sir Ron Dearing and called for comprehensive reform of 16 to 19 education.

College leaders are the radicals in the pack baying for reform of the whole 16 to 19 education and training system.

The Sixth Form Colleges Association and the Association for Colleges have told Sir Ron Dearing, who is conducting a review of 16-19 education, that ultimately they want the curriculum broken down into hundreds of small sections. These would be the size of current A-level modules or general national vocational qualification units such as "speaking French", "maths for engineering" or "business in Europe". Students would then pick and mix to create customised courses leading to a national certificate.

Closely followed by the Secondary Heads Association, the two associations are at the vanguard of a movement Sir Ron's 16-19 Review of Qualifications was designed to head off. Ministers want the chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to make existing qualifications less rigid without actually abolishing them.

Today is the official deadline for comments on Sir Ron's review. He will be disappointed if he hoped one of his three proposed models for a national certificate would please colleges. (TES, pages 10 and 11) The Association for Colleges, which carried out a detailed survey of its members, has not only rejected his controversial proposal for a baccalaureate-style award, but dismissed his two other suggestions. One was was a plan for a certificate at three levels - foundation, intermediate and advanced - the other was a certificate tied to Government-backed National Targets for Education and Training .

In their place, the AFC has put forward its own national certificate framework made up of 21 assessment units. The association claims it has the academic excellence of the baccalaureate-type certificate while allowing students across a much wider academic and vocational ability range to have a go.

The aim, according to AFC head of curriculum Judith Norrington, is that the certificate should be attainable by about half the age group. Under this model, submitted to Sir Ron's review, the current qualifications - A-levels, GNVQs and NVQs - would stay. Though association's ultimate aim is a curriculum made up entirely of small units it knew that such a proposal now would have been thrown out. However, the existing elements could be mixed and matched by students more adventurously than is usual at present, the AFC insists.

But while retaining A-levels in the short term, the AFC model will undoubtedly be seen by ministers as a backdoor to reforming them out of existence since the distinctions between A-level and GNVQ would become redundant.

The AFC certificate would have three elements. First, there is a "defining choice" worth 12 assessment units. This would probably be two A-levels or an advanced GNVQ.

Second, a "mandatory" element would be core skills such as literacy or numeracy, each worth one unit, and a minimum of three would be needed to gain the certificate. This was element demanded by most colleges surveyed. And third, there would be "complementary choice" worth six units, such as a combination of more GNVQ units, another A-level or two AS-levels.

The AFC insists that this would end the debate over the relative worth of A-level and GNVQ and whether A-level was the gold standard.

The units could also be used to measure point scores for university entry, or as a basis for assessing prior learning of adults. While Sir Ron was asked to focus on 16 to 19-year-olds, any reforms will affect adult learners just as profoundly.

Once given the reassurance of an overall certificate to aim for, more students would be encouraged to take advantage of increased flexibility to mix types of study and follow a broader range of subject areas, tailoring them to their aspirations for HE or a job, the association argues.

Model examples include a school-leaver hoping to work in the leisure industry and interested in working in Europe. A certificate might encompass an advanced GNVQ in leisure and tourism (a defining choice), a French AS-level and GNVQ units in business law and business in Europe (complementary choices) and core skills.

Students could also be encouraged to rectify national skills shortages - a modern foreign language could be made compulsory, for example.

The AFC says the 20 per cent drop-out rate from full-time education costs Pounds 24 million a year through losses from humanities courses alone.

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