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'An inspired piece of muted political pragmatism'

WHEN IT comes to post-16 curriculum reform, the Government wishes to be seen to be doing its duty. Its more radical reforming fire is reserved for improving the standards of compulsory schooling, writes Elaine Williams.

Politicians realise that they have manifesto commitments to fulfil: to broaden A-levels and upgrade vocational qualifications, underpinning them with "rigorous standards" and key skills. They have to be seen to be taking the Dearing report on higher education forward, and, although they favour a strong qualifications framework, there is no desire to expend energy heading down the baccalaureate route. The Government wants to keep Joe Public on board and has no stomach for taking on those Rottweiler guardians of A-levels - the leader writers of the popular press.

"Qualifying for Success" is an inspired piece of muted political pragmatism. It states which bits of Dearing it is prepared to move forward on and which bits it feels more equivocal about. Through a series of 19 questions, it invites response and debate on all the important issues on the understanding that, while it is prepared to establish building blocks for a broader curriculum, though retaining a commitment to A-levels, the issue of overarching certification is for a future day and certainly for a future parliament.

It seeks to avoid banana skins at all costs and any decisions that could be considered rash. The paper sets out the Government's commitment to creating clear parity of esteem between the vocational and academic routes into higher education: the A-level and GNVQ. It reopens the question of naming the Advanced GNVQ the Applied A-level and it suggests new three and six-unit GNVQs that would be equivalent to the new, renamed AS - the Advanced Subsidiary level - and an A-level.

The paper proposes to realign GNVQ and A-level grading scales so that they are directly equivalent and clear to admissions officers. The key innovation, however, the three-unit building block, not dissimilar to a Scottish Higher, will become the chief foundation of a broader curriculum. Each A-level would incorporate the AS element and marks from the AS would contribute to the A-level grade.

The Government is also consulting on whether there should be more modules at A-levels (exams taken during the course instead of one exam at the end) and what the proportion of internal to external assessment should be. It states its attraction "to loosening the restrictions on coursework in A-level (limited to 20 per cent of total marks apart from practical subjects such as art).

The paper also underlines Labour's manifesto commitment to ensure that all 16 to 19-year-olds gain new qualifications in literacy, numeracy and information technology; a new single key skills qualification is being piloted. More controversially, it includes an option to link "levels of student support in higher education to prior attainment of key skills". It acknowledges that the wider key skills of improving own learning and performance, working with others and problem-solving should also be certified, and asks how this might be done.

Officials at the Department for Education and Employment are eager to point out that the Government doesn't think it should "go ahead with all these at once", but only "when people are satisfied that the timing is right". In particular, it aims to give a further year for putting in place new key skills and AS qualifications, planned under Dearing for next year.

Where Dearing proposed an overarching National Certificate at intermediate level and a Diploma at advanced level, the Government intends to focus on an advanced level alone. However, moving away from Dearing's three-track approach, this overarching framework will allow the mixing of academic and vocational: A-level, GNVQ and NVQ.

The Government makes it clear that depth of attainment must be rewarded and that there should be differentiation to record a range of achievement. Any certificate must require attainment in "whole qualifications" and learners should not be encouraged to pick and mix unrelated units. In passing reference to funding issues that overarching certification would certainly throw up, the document also asks how much taught time would be required to deliver "the necessary programme of study to full-time participants over two years".

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