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Keep your eye on the target

The August argument about A-level results is a regular fixture in the calendar. It kicks off the education year a couple of weeks after the Community Shield starts the football season.

When it comes to A-levels, you can't predict the results but you can predict the reactions. One side will be looking for evidence of declining standards if the results are good or dumbed-down youngsters if not.

The other side will link improved results to better teaching or effective government policy. The arguments are predictable despite the fact that only one in three 18-year-olds take A-levels.

The story of the rest of the age group has different twists. Over the years, the Government has set various targets to raise the percentage of 19-year-olds with level 2 qualifications - five GCSEs grade A-C or equivalent.

Back in 1998, the Government set a goal that 85 per cent should reach this level - 10 per cent progress on the starting level. This target was missed.

In 2000, the Government revised the target down to aim for a 3 per cent rise on the starting point by 2004. Again, this was missed. Similar targets for 2006 and 2008 are clearly unattainable. Over the past six years, there has been no progress at all. The percentage of young people who attain level 2 qualifications is stuck just below 75 per cent.

Targets are abstractions used by politicians and managers to divide budgets. But they are abstractions that also represent real people.

The current level 2 target translates into an aim that 20,000 more 19-year-olds should be leaving education or training with entry-level qualifications needed for working life. This is the target that the English education system keeps missing.

GCSE results may be edging up slightly but only 54 per cent of 16-year-olds achieve at least five A-Cs. By 19, another 21 per cent have reached this level, leaving 25 per cent without. This is the implication of getting stuck at 75 per cent.

Around 150,000 young people each year start adult life without a level 2 qualification. Anyone involved in adult learning will immediately see the implications. There is now a vast catch-up exercise to help adults achieve level 2 qualifications which is absorbing time, attention and, above all, money.

Would this exercise be necessary if there had been a different focus in the initial education system? The Prime Minister's Delivery Unit is currently investigating the issue. Their conclusions may have some answers but it is possible that the investigation could raise questions about the impact of other government policies.

The relentless focus on A-levels and equivalent level 3 courses dominates the field. The majority of school sixth forms have always focused on this level as have sixth-form colleges.

Plans to open new sixth forms in schools and academies will add to the number of organisations competing for school-leavers with good GCSEs.

Meanwhile, many general further education and tertiary colleges have large and growing cohorts of A-level and level 3 students. They have been encouraged to open dedicated 16-19 centres and have responded. All types of institution -college, school and academy - respond to the fact that the academic 16-19 route has the highest status locally with students, parents and the public.

Government agencies also play a role. It is striking that most of the colleges praised in Ofsted's How colleges succeed focus on level 3 provision while many of those in How colleges fail focus on level 1 and 2.

Does the inspection system create unhelpful penalties for those colleges focusing on level 2 courses?

Running level 2 courses has also been made more difficult by the frequent changes to qualifications. Over the years, 16-year-olds leaving school without GCSEs have been offered resit courses, First Diplomas, Intermediate GNVQs, NVQ level 2s and key skills.

The next step will be the new vocational diplomas promised in the 14-19 white paper, but this is only half the solution advocated in the Tomlinson report.

Repeated decisions have been made to preserve A-levels while changing everything else around them. This cannot help raise the status of alternative routes for young people.

Finally, there are funding questions. The Learning and Skills Council has started to make much of the fact that 16-to-18 year old students are taking heavier programmes, which require more money.

What may be worth closer investigation is the link between funding differences and qualification levels. There is also the schoolcollege funding gap, which rewards schools with level 3 programmes and penalises those colleges focusing on level 2.

Colleges have been criticised for talking about fairness but these criticisms ignore the impact of unfair policies on the young people in colleges.

A Government that is serious about raising achievement needs to reappraise policies and assumptions across the board - on funding, qualifications, inspection and organisation.

Julian Gravatt is director of funding and development for the Association of Colleges

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