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Curriculum seen through the looking-glass

Lewis Carroll's White Queen used to practise believing in six impossible things before breakfast. Working with the 16-19 curriculum demands the same early morning discipline, since it is fraught with paradox and inconsistency. Sir Ron Dearing's interim report, commendably seeking to reconcile stability with development, reveals many of these paradoxes but, predictably, fails to resolve them.

The most fundamental paradox seems to be the clash between the More Means Better and the More Means Worse schools of thought. It is vital for economic regeneration that a greater percentage of young people and of the workforce should achieve ever higher levels of education and training. On the other hand, any qualification being achieved by increasing numbers must be lowering its standards.

This reflects a perverse but widely-accepted view that quality can be measured by the number of failures. Grammar schools are better than comprehensive schools because not everyone can go to them; A-level was best when 30 per cent of candidates automatically failed. (This paradox is sharpened, however, by the GCSE argument that if passes fall it is not because of higher standards, but teacher failure).

A-levels, we all know, are universally recognised and valued. So they ought to be after 40 years. Certainly both employers and universities often require them of young people. Yet illogically, employers complain that A-level does not demand a mastery of the skills which are an essential part of general national vocational qualifications; and universities are concerned about the levels of literacy and numeracy shown by undergraduates. So why do many of them now accept students with lower grades than they used to require, thus compounding the problem?

Once a student with E, E, N grades would be advised to follow a higher national diploma course; now he or she will be accepted for a degree. In the meantime, the country needs more workers with the skills and competencies supplied by HND.

A number of paradoxical truisms are not looked at, it seems, in tandem with each other. Students require action plans and vocational guidance before selecting a pathway. Workers in the future will need to be flexible and adaptable, changing careers several times during their working lives. Adolescents are temperamental and changeable; but they cannot take their suitcase of transferable skills across from one pathway to another.

Instead of moving upwards on a different ladder they must slide down the snake and start again.

Many employers, we are told, do not value the occupationally specific national vocational qualifications. Colleges, who may be asked to provide part of these, are blamed for their inadequacies. But it is the lead bodies for the different occupations who devise NVQs. And the more occupationally specific the qualifications, the less they may qualify workers to adapt themselves to career change. The accreditation of prior learning is a phrase which is more honoured in the breach than the observance.

As for the GNVQ, it enjoys parity of esteem with GCSE and GCE only with parents, students and teachers. It is less widely understood and accepted by employers and universities than older qualifications. Its low completion rate causes concern, whereas on the More Means Worse principle this should verify its quality and rigour.

At the advanced level fewer than half complete in the 'normal' two years allowed for it, which might lead one to redefine 'normal'. The National Council for Vocational Qualifications devised it as a course in which students should progress at their own pace.

The Further Education Funding Council, however, bases its funding methodology on its being a two-year course, and success after two years is not recorded in the Government's league tables. Advanced GNVQ is equivalent to two A-Levels. Half an A-level is an AS-level; half a GNVQ is not equivalent to one A-level, but is a failure to complete.

Even the phrases 16-19 and 14-19 are inconsistent with the definition of young people in the national targets for education and training, which aim to improve our economic performance. In those, you are a young person until you are 21, and can take until that age to reach level 2 or level 3.

But if you do need longer than 'normal' you will not automatically have your tuition fees paid for you after you are 19. If you don't need this extra time, of course, you can proceed to university and continue to have your tuition fees paid until you graduate.

We all agree that the country needs More. But More of what? We cannot resolve paradoxes until, agreeing that they exist, we decide what More means and adopt the new principle: More Means Different. Until we all know what we are really talking about, and say the same things whichever context we are speaking in, we may feel, like Alice in Looking Glass country, that the whole thing is exactly like a riddle with no answer.

Anne Smith is principal of John Ruskin Sixth Form College, Croydon.

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