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Dearing champions the young no-hopers

Nicholas Pyke reports on this week's far-reaching proposals for 16-19 reform.

Britain's "maze" of 16,000 qualifications should be untangled and turned into one simple, slim structure, according to Sir Ron Dearing's colossal report on 16 to 19 education.

The 700-page document with 200 recommendations is a wide-ranging assault on one of the most complex and least understood areas of education and is intended as a decisive step against the dominance of the academic A-level.

Speaking at this week's launch, Sir Ron said his priority is all the school-leavers who end up with no education, training or employment, currently a fifth of the total.

"If these kids who are not succeeding at school can't catch up their future is bleak. I am deeply concerned to include them for their own sake, as well as the nation's, into education and training. That's a personal passion. Twenty per cent of kids don't get GCSE grade G in English and maths. That means that they are not at a level of an average 12-year-old."

Sir Ron also calls for tougher A-levels in the arts. He wants a back-to-basics emphasis on the "key skills" of mental arithmetic and spoken English in schools, colleges and at work. And he demands a massive simplifying of a system that leaves employers and the public "bewildered".

He also proposes to rescue the ailing general national vocational qualification with a package based on strict but simplified assessment.

Launching the report in the Commons, Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, said Sir Ron's proposals "set a powerful agenda for change".

"We are determined to make sure that our qualifications are of the highest standard. Increased rigour, reduced bureaucracy and an emphasis on core skills will be the centrepiece of this framework."

The report, commissioned by the Government, proposes two over-arching qualifications to reward students with A-levels and vocational qualifications. There will be a National Certificate - given for a set number of passes - and a baccalaureate-style National Diploma rewarding breadth of study.

Sir Ron includes widely-trailed proposals for replacing Youth Training with a system of National Traineeships which would include a broader education, and for allowing some 14-year-olds to embark on vocational courses with a workplace or college element.

Mrs Shephard said she aimed to have the new qualifications framework in place by September next year, but said Sir Ron's training proposals would be phased in over a longer period.

She has told the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications to look immediately at ways of raising A-level standards and increasing the rigour of vocational qualifications. Plans to merge the work of the two quangos are also to be put out to consultation.

The report has had a warm welcome from the educational world. It earned "high marks" from the National Association of Headteachers. University heads said Dearing had come up with "far-sighted proposals which bring much needed flexibility". The report was welcomed by the chief executives of the GCSE and GCE exam boards.

The report was backed by Labour which last week published its own, similar proposals. However David Blunkett, education and employment spokesman, said that Government action will be needed to reform the post-16 institutions.

There is some criticism that Sir Ron has pulled back from key decisions, perhaps reflecting the diversity of political pressures he faced.

Professor Alan Smithers from the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Brunel University said: "The report is subtle to the point of overcomplication. In seeking to provide something for everyone, it may not be readily understood by the people who need to understand it. I think he has come to the view that you can't trust everything that people say. So he has provided a menu to see what employers and higher education actually do want in the end."

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