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Has Sir Ron solved Wendy's worries?

What would Wendy think? In colleges countrywide, managers are pondering the views of this notional school-leaver on the brave new world of domains and baccalaureates put forward this week by Sir Ron Dearing.

At Reading College of Arts and Technology, they suspect Wendy - one of a set of typical students invented by the Association for Colleges to illustrate its response to the Dearing review - might not be too keen on the prospect of the French-style qualification.

In fact, she and her friends would be very likely to look elsewhere for their post-16 education if the college introduced a baccalaureate-style model, principal Fred McCrindle suspects.

At Reading, the 2,500 full-time students - just under a quarter of the total - are encouraged and guided to tailor their own courses, combining A-levels, complete general national vocational qualifications or individual units and core skills such as literacy and numeracy.

Sir Ron has put forward three models for a national certificate, including one he terms a baccalaureate. In Sir Ron's baccalaureate a framework of four "domains" is suggested: maths and science, humanities, social sciences and modern foreign languages. Students would be asked to select elements from these subject areas. But these would be too restrictive for young and flexible minds, Mr McCrindle fears.

If school-leavers were not to vote with their feet and opt for alternative qualifications, firm legislation on French lines would be needed to make sure the baccalaureate-style national certificate was universally offered. Mr McCrindle is doubtful such rigidity would be well-received. The touchstone of the FE system, after all, has been open access - the desire to offer something for everyone.

Without legislation, some students would undoubtedly opt out of taking core skills and the broader national certificate, choosing instead to specialise, defeating the aim of achieving a unified framework.

In a former technical college where those taking the vocational path full-time currently outnumber A-level students by five to one, the sense of elitism might be sorely felt. For over-19s, making up a increasing proportion of FE college rolls, the domains concept could seem particularly daunting and inaccessible.

Mr McCrindle raises strong doubts, too, over the sheer cost and practicality of this type of qualification - not least for school sixth forms. With a choice of more than 30 A-level subjects and more than 400 vocational qualifications it would be well placed to offer such a certificate, but he acknowledges schools could struggle.

Even for a relatively large college, timetabling such a system could prove a nightmare, creating unfeasibly small classes at a time of tough funding pressures.

If a domain-based qualification is unlikely to satisfy students and colleges, it could prove equally unpopular with employers unable to identify its focus, Reading's principal predicts. "I think it is a confusion to assume that it will be seen to have breadth just because a student picks up a social science programme with a bit of technology."

Experience shows employers demand tailored skills adapted to different vocations.

While Reading's Wendys might have little time for a baccalaureate-style qualification, their college is sure they would not reject the principle of a national certificate.

The AFC's proposal, based on a system of units attached to existing qualifications and core skills, wins the strongest favour from Mr McCrindle.

"It puts a framework around a lot of the things which already exist, which is a positive aspect in the light of the changes in education over the past 10 years."

Students would welcome a more formal way of placing a value on their course choices, and the points system would simplify the higher education applications process. Universities could specify combinations of subjects as well as points scores appropriate for admission to individual courses. The unit-based certificate is seen as appropriate for adult learners.

Incorporating core skills in the points count would come naturally at Reading, where the 400 A-level students already have literacy, numeracy and information technology skills accredited.

"This would not be a big jump for students or universities - they already understand the points idea," says Mr McCrindle. Employers, just beginning to grow accustomed to the acronym-infested jungle of vocational qualifications, would accept a national certificate, he maintains, in return for a freeze on further change.

The key for all colleges, if the AFC voice is representative, is to find a means of attaching a value to the system already in place, creating a sense of uniformity of standards with an over-arching framework.

"The message here is if it ain't completely broke don't throw it away and build a new one," says the principal. "We need to take the strengths of the sector and move forward."

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