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The curriculum in flux

Judith Norrington on how the way we promote learning is under scrutiny.

The curriculum could be described as being all those ways in which a college directly or indirectly promotes learning and a learning society. The key purpose of a college is to provide opportunities for people to learn. The curriculum provides the means and the range of provision on offer, influenced by the intended "mission" and strategic plan of the college.

It is a truism to say that no two colleges are the same and therefore that no two colleges will offer exactly the same range of courses or options. All colleges will provide a curriculum which serves their local community though some may also attract students nationally for a specialist course; stone masonry at Weymouth College comes to mind as does a course on fish farming offered by one of the Scottish colleges.

Generally, compared with other types of educational establishment, further education colleges provide the widest range of provision, both in type and subject area. Nationally, over half the students enrolled on vocational courses such as GNVQs and NVQs, a further quarter are studying for GCSEs and GCEs and around 5 per cent follow higher education courses including access and degree courses. Others may be following programmes designed to meet the needs of a particular employer or a range of classes from aerobics to French conversation.

It is a time of change and new developments. In Scotland, the "Higher Still" initiative is underway where a radical re-think of the curriculum available in the fifth and sixth years at school, has led to proposals where the formally separated routes of academic and vocational qualifications will be brought together under one framework. This aims to provide students with "reasonable standards in a broad range of subjects" with equal status for both the academic and the vocational content and enables students to demonstrate proficiency in core skills including information technology, numeracy and problem solving.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland the GNVQ, designed as a broadly based vocationally orientated qualification is still being phased in with four subject areas, including media and performing arts, out of the fifteen subject areas still to be piloted. Changes have also been made to the specification during implementation with very many versions of the earliest subjects such as business and health and social care having being absorbed by colleges.

The original assessment regime has also been modified which apart from allowing a few more rain forests to remain standing should have a positive impact on helping to ensure comparability of standards across the award. A-levels are also developing, with an increasing number of modular GCE A-levels and the effects that this will have on student motivation and standards will need to be examined.

We will see the birth (at least in pilot form) in September 1996, of the son or daughter of the GNVQ, to be called the GNVQ Part 1 for pupils from 14 to 16. These awards will be made up of three mandatory units plus three core skill units taken directly from the parent GNVQ and will be available at two levels, foundation and intermediate, in the areas of business, health and social care and manufacturing. There will be implications in relation to progression of students between schools and colleges and the college curriculum which will have to accommodate students who already have part of a full GNVQ qualification.

Other innovations include work on credit, which at its best, would give flexibility of movement within the curriculum on offer and would help to provide a language to describe the level and dimensions of an individual's attainment. Much research and development has been carried out to try to develop units of assessment and to put into practice a credit framework. Other credit consortia are also at work across England and the Open College networks have also helped to pioneer many of the processes in practice.

It is a time when there is considerable debate about the curriculum. Now there is a stronger focus with more channels of communication open between government departments and the sector and at least an apparent greater willingness to listen. There is always, and rightly, public concern about standards, about whether the curriculum is meeting the needs of higher education and employers and whether it is possible to do both at the same time. Is the curriculum broad enough and should we, as some of us believe, be looking to provide an agreed entitlement for all, young and old? The jury is still out on many of these ideas but there are signs that there is a willingness at least to probe these issues.

Sir Ron Dearing, who led the work on rationalising the national curriculum for schools was asked by the Secretary of State in April to carry out a review of the 16 to 19 qualifications framework. Gillian Shephard says that the intention is to encourage "greater coherence and breadth, to ensure the most cost-effective delivery of qualifications and to reduce wastage without compromising standards".

Sir Ron has been asked to look at the need to maintain the rigour of GCE A-level and to continue to build on the current programmes of GNVQs and NVQs. A consultation process is underway and an initial report identifying the issues to be considered will be produced by July.

Concurrently, the House of Commons education committee chaired by Sir Malcolm Thornton has announced their intention to undertake an inquiry into education and training for 14 to 19-year-olds. The committee is particularly interested in the current structure of provision and whether it promotes effective education and training for young people.

This review will consider among other things whether there is sufficient breadth in the current curriculum, ensuring parity of esteem between vocational and academic curricula and qualifications, the performance of GNVQs since their introduction and the respective roles of sixth forms in schools, sixth-form colleges and colleges of further education in delivering the post-16 curriculum.

Representative bodies within the sector have also entered the debate and have put forward possible strategies for the way forward. The Association for Colleges has worked with five other bodies including the Sixth Form Colleges Association, the Secondary Heads Association and the Girls' Schools Association on a joint curriculum statement which proposes an overarching framework under which units, either vocational or academic in origin can be built up to achieve a single titled award, at key levels.

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