A-level core skills get overwhelming backing

Ian Nash

Overwhelming support for the testing of all A-level candidates in the basic skills of literacy, numeracy and information technology has come from employers, educationists and the trade unions.

Students who do not cover these in their mainstream academic and vocational studies will have to take supplementary courses, under the White Paper proposals for increased competitiveness.

Arts students will be tested in numeracy and information technology, while science students will be required to pass rigorous tests in basic communication skills.

The acceptance by ministers of nine new national targets for education and training within the new White Paper means that the demands of the National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets now have the full backing of the Cabinet.

Peter Davis, the chairman of NACETT, said: "There is an urgent need to give greater recognition and impetus to the acquisition of competence in core skills such as communication, numeracy and IT to ensure a skilled and adaptable workforce for the 21st century."

Education Secretary Gillian Shephard said schools and colleges must act on them. "Having a framework in place is one thing; making sure there is achievement in the core skills is another. These new targets will help us."

The greatest pressure had come from employers over the six months of detailed consultations with more than 300 local education authorities, training and enterprise councils, employers, trade unions, schools, colleges, universities, statutory bodies and voluntary organisations.

Schools and colleges will be encouraged to set their own local targets to improve performance, based on the national aims, and include "value-added" measures to improve results year-on-year. NACETT argues that these targets should be tied to funding in schools with rewards similar to those given to colleges under the Further Education Funding Council.

However, the consultation report also highlights the need for more resources, particularly to help schools and colleges with the new General National Vocational Qualifications. NACETT has pledged to continue monitoring those needs.

The new targets are seen as offering much clearer aims than the ones devised by the Confederation of British Industry four years ago and backed by the TUC.

The targets also offer a greater challenge which ministers say has become necessary as competitor countries raise their targets.

The number of young people expected to reach A-level or equivalent NVQGNVQ by 2000 has risen from 50 to 60 per cent. The number expected to get five GCSEs (A-C) or equivalent has also gone up - from 80 to 85 per cent.

Pressures on employers to guarantee constant retraining and lifelong learning to employers are stepped up, though the targets give no indication of how pressure would be applied.

Three-quarters of 19-year-olds are expected to qualify in the three basic core skills to GCSE level while 35 per cent would be expected to reach A-level standard in these skills.

Many will be disappointed. The Equal Opportunities Commission had called for an "equality target", arguing that "underachievement of vocational qualifications by women, and lower academic qualifications by boys, indicates the need" to support longer-term strategies.

The CBI, too, called for a target for higher education, with around 40 per cent of school- leavers going into HE by 2000. However, NACETT has plumped for greater emphasis on the development of technician skills, calling for 30 per cent of the workforce to have a vocational, professional, management or academic qualification at NVQ level 4 or above.

Government targets in the 1980s to have 33 per cent of school-leavers in HE by the end of the century have already been passed. Ministers have since made it clear that the new drive in further and higher education would be at technician rather than graduate level.

This view is strongly backed in the consultation report from NACETT which, in pitching the target at NVQ level 4, is stressing the importance of the technician trained to higher diploma level in helping regenerate the British economy.

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