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A great cliff to be scaled

Michael Cockett, John Callaghan and Dave Hustler examine how well schools prepare the young for post-compulsory education. One of the current catchphrases in both educational and political circles is "the promotion of a culture of lifetime learning". But what sort of launch-pad is the compulsory phase of education, particularly for those not following the traditional A-level route to university?

We questioned 37 young people from two sixth-form and two further education colleges in the North-west, following national vocational qualification (NVQ) level 2, general national vocational qualification (GNVQ) intermediate courses and re-sit GCSEs, about their transition from school to college.

All the interviewees talked about passing (C or above) and failing GCSEs.

Interviewer: "When you say you've got them, what do you mean?" Student 1: "I passed them."

Interviewer: "At what grade are you talking about?" Student 1: "Grade C. You need C grade and above. At the moment I've got two GCSEs, C grades."

This student, who had only "got" two GCSEs, had actually got grade E in five other subjects.

The interviews were all punctuated with similar references. A few students expressed satisfaction with their results even though they did not "pass". Some had "passed" unexpectedly and were very pleased. The vast majority felt they had failed their exams and some were embarrassed at even mentioning their grades.

Many spoke about the pressure they had been under at school to achieve a grade C.

Student 2: "They expected everything to be perfect and like because you were competing with other schools in England and if other schools were doing better than you, then it was our fault."

In spite of the rhetoric surrounding GCSEs as an examination for all, the grade C cliff still exists, not only in the minds of the students but embedded in the system. If you reach the top of the cliff then a whole new landscape opens up. You can choose to do A-levels or advanced GNVQ or you can elect, as some did, to do intermediate GNVQ and consolidate your position. Less than grade C and you are back at the bottom of the cliff and must start to climb again.

The sixth-form college students, in general, had a re-sit mentality. They saw themselves attempting a direct route up the cliff using a combination of GNVQ and re-sit GCSEs but this time with confidence and enthusiasm dented by their 16-plus results. Their focus was A-level.

The FE students, on the other hand, had a by-pass mentality. They were much more likely to have a particular vocational focus. Some had rejected the A-level route, though not necessarily the ambition to go on to higher education. For them GNVQ was a route round the cliff or at least a staged pathway up it. They talked favourably about the modular structure of GNVQ with its coursework and end-of-module tests and some contrasted this with their dislike of, and inability to cope with, end-of-course examinations.

The overall impression, however, is of many students starting their post-16 education or training with a strong sense of having to start again.

A contributory issue relates to choices the students made in relation to their GCSEs. Many interviewees had dropped or discounted a number of subjects. The focus on grade C meant that they maximised their chances, by concentrating on the subjects that they were good at.

This instrumental approach, well established before they leave school, fits ill with the notion of a culture of life-time learning but it is encouraged by the entry requirements and advice given to students, certainly in FE colleges. The further down the ability range the narrower the spread of subjects they continue to study. The justification for "dropping" subjects was sometimes directly expressed in vocational terms, so history and geography and sometimes languages were seen as useless. Mathematics, while being considered useful, was named by many as a subject they could not do.

Instrumentalism also influences the re-sitting of subjects. Maths, for example, is something to be got out of the way for matriculation purposes rather than a subject seen to have any intrinsic value.

Ours was a small-scale survey and there must be the usual reservations about drawing large conclusions. One of our purposes, however, was to begin a systematic collection of evidence on the effects of current course and assessment structures on transition at 16-plus. Another aim is to illustrate matters which are taken for granted among many working in the field. Interviews with college staff, which were part of the research, also show that it is taken as read that grade C is a pass and that it is better to get grade Cs in a few subjects than lower grades across a wider field.

A significant minority can roam across the cliff with relative ease since they have a grip on a wide range of subjects. Another significant minority view the climb with trepidation and concentrate their efforts on a limited number of routes. Many of these get within sight of the top only to drop off and are faced with starting again, knowing that they have failed once already. The final group look at the cliff face and know they will never get to the top.

It would appear that this study supports the calls for an integrated accreditation system such as the general education diploma proposed by the National Commission on Education but it also serves as a warning to those who might implement such proposals. The grade C cliff has survived the introduction of CSE and GCSE and it now has a strong influence on GNVQ. Any new qualification will have grades or levels regarded as the equivalent of four or five GCSEs, grades C and above. The test will be whether those not gaining these top grades will also feel qualified, and that they have been launched on their lifetime's journey with some credit.

Mike Cockett was TVEI co-ordinator for Manchester and is now engaged in research at The Manchester Metropolitan University; John Callaghan was a senior tutor in a sixth-form college and is now a freelance tutor and researcher; Dave Hustler is reader in education at The Manchester Metropolitan University.

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