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Future is in their hands

Unless universities support the 14-19 diploma, it is likely to fail, writes David Hargreaves

The principal function of schools, some university teachers think, is to provide them with the next cohort of undergraduates. The students should be just ready to embark on the university's first-year requirements. In elite universities, the dons think the primary function of undergraduates is to serve as a pool from which the next generation of research students can be drawn, and from them their own successors are groomed.

Of course I exaggerate, and happily there are exceptions. It is true, however, that there has been little serious discussion between university teachers and policy-makers and practitioners in the upper secondary sector about the changing nature and purpose of the 14-19 phase in an age of mass higher education. In half a century the proportion of the age cohort in universities has increased from around 5 per cent to a current target of 50 per cent, and the percentage expected to remain in education and training between 16 and 19 soars to 90 per cent. Such a dramatic change inevitably affects how university teachers understand 14-19 education and their changing responsibilities towards it.

During this period of consultation on the 14-19 Green Paper, the issue must not be defined as what the proposed changes can do for universities, but what universities can now do for 14-19 education.

A lesson has been learned from Curriculum 2000 and A-level reform. The key skills qualifications in communication, application of number and information technology were introduced with much support from higher education and employers. At sixth-form and further education college level the funding mechanism made it virtually impossible not to require most students to pursue the qualifications. While there were complaints in some quarters, many students generally worked positively for them.

At least they did until some had their interviews with university admissions officers. To the students' dismay, some admissions officers pleaded total ignorance of the key skills. Others told the students that these qualifications were irrelevant to admission, and that only the specified A-level grades really counted. This happened even where the official university policy towards the key skills was positive. Naturally the students returned to their schools and colleges with travellers' tales about the lack of value of key skills in HE, which led some students to refuse to continue with the qualifications.

We must learn from this experience and the main lesson is this. What admissions tutors say matters. The advice and comments made to an individual applicant have ramifications that can affect a substantial number of young people, the nature of course provision in a school or college, and the status and value of qualifications across the whole spectrum of 16-19 education. Admissions tutors have a capacity to influence the education not just of those they interview, but the age cohort as a whole. So they have a real responsibility to exercise that influence for the good of the cohort as a whole, not just the relatively tiny number of applicatants they meet each year.

How does this bear upon the Green Paper proposals? The answer lies in the proposed overarching award, provisionally called the matriculation diploma. The suggestion is that it should be available at three levels and each should have three components, including a wider activities strand, to record and recognise achievement in extra-curricular activities, citizenship and voluntary service, and work-related learning. This would be an incentive for young people to engage in worthwhile activities outside their formal studies - the important aspect of sixth-form life that many claimed Curriculum 2000 was squeezing out.

If universities choose to ignore the diploma or to give mixed and confusing messages about it to sixth- form students, there is a real danger that it will share the fate of the key skills qualifications. If universities - in practice their admissions officers - want young people to demonstrate clear evidence of a rounded education that includes the "softer" skills acquired in the wider activities, they must explicitly expect students to achieve the diploma as a whole, as well as particular grades in A-levels.

The fate of the diploma is in their hands. The response of the universities will shape the attitudes of sixth-formers and the nature of provision and policies in schools and colleges and affect the lives and educational experience of all 14-19 students, not just of those who now aspire to higher education. Will they now help us to transform the 14-19 phase to the benefit of all?

David Hargreaves is an adviser to Estelle Morris on 14-19 issues and a fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge

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