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Gold,bronze and iron?;Reviews;Education Books;Secondary

SEPARATE BUT EQUAL? A-levels and GNVQs. Tony Edwards, Carol Taylor, Fitz-Gibbon, Frank Hardman, Roy Haywood and Nick Meagher. Routledge pound;14.99.

The recent abandonment of the White Paper on lifelong learning means that post-compulsory education remains in the state bequeathed by the 1992 Further and Higher Education Act. Similarly, the pattern of compulsory schooling is fixed by the 1988 Education Act, with only minor trimming of the national curriculum following Dearing's first review, plus the recent narrow focusing in primary schools.

Dearing's second review of post-16 qualifications confirmed his Platonic hierarchy of gold, bronze and iron - A-level, GNVQ and NVQ. And his third report on higher education endorsed an identical tripartism in Americanised further and higher education, with an elite "Ivy League" dominating "state" universities fed sub-degree students from FE and community colleges. The resulting "higher educational apartheid", recently decried by Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University, is echoed in the title of this book.

An introduction by Tony Edwards places the new GNVQs in the context of previous attempts to "bridge" the academic general education of leaders over the vocational training of followers by introducing a second-best route - whether via post-war technical school, polytechnic, or CSE exam. This stream blocks any change in the gold standard which defines excellence and so prevents "parity of esteem".

In the next chapter, Carol Fitz-Gibbon draws on a large data set covering one-third of A-level entries to make quantitative comparisons with a smaller sample of GNVQs to conclude that they are "slightly different and equally useful . . . and could all be called A-levels".

Nick Meagher then contrasts A-level and GNVQ classes, while Frank Hardman interviews teachers of A-level English language - supposedly a "soft option" like GNVQ - and "hard" and canonical English literature, to discover little difference between them.

All this is essential reading for teachers in sixth-forms and in FE - especially as Roy Haywood relates how the teachers he interviewed were "disturbed to find they used a style of teaching that reduced students to a passive role".

These findings are, however, presented in a rather academic way, unlike, for instance, Fitz-Gibbon's previous Inspection of OFSTED Inspectors.

Also, despite the continuity Edwards shows in "the sharp separation of leaders from followers that an exclusive view of sixth-forms reflected", the book does not connect with similar concerns in HE. Nor to the debate over general studies in FE, long sustained by Colin Waugh.

What is also needed to put the latest developments in perspective is an overview of the new patterns emerging between schools and sixth forms, FEand HE in contrasted areas, where inequalities are being heightened by the regionalisation encouraged by government.

Patrick Ainley is co-author, with Bill Bailey, of "The Business of Learning" (Cassell 1997)

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