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Liberty, fraternity, pity about equality

France's failure to give academic and vocational qualifications equal status through reforms similar to those in England and Wales carries "clear messages" for those still working to unite the pathways.

Efforts to raise the status of job-related studies have failed because the French insist on keeping three routes for post-16 students leading to general, technological and vocational Baccalaureats, senior college inspectors suggest this week in a report on their first investigation of education and training in France.

Terry Melia, chief inspector for the Further Education Funding Council, told The TES: "There are clear messages for us in the French experience. They have still not got people to accept that there is equal merit in the vocational pathway. We have to watch that our pecking order of A-level, GNVQ and NVQ does not persist."

The inspection report gives strong support to the proposal, in Sir Ron Dearing's 16 to 19 review, for an over-arching qualification allowing students to mix and match studies and assessment styles.

The reform proposed in the consultation report on the review by the chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has near-unanimous backing from leaders in schools, colleges and industry.

In the late 1980s, France decided to reform its Baccalaureat system and looked to the NVQ-style competence testing being developed in the UK. It faced similar challenges to other European countries: the need to improve the quality of education, cope with increased demand cost-effectively and improve job prospects for the young.

The FEFC inspectors found commitment to national targets, high priority given to careers guidance, a relevant and broadly-based curriculum and flexible arrangements for continuing vocational education. "Competence, knowledge and understanding are given appropriate recognition," the report says.

Many of the aims of France and England and the problems they were tackling were similar, said Dr Melia. "But there are interesting differences. One of the most noticeable is the emphasis on broadly-based curricula in which core skills and underlying principles have an equal place. The fact that this is often lacking in the UK is an issue Sir Ron Dearing is planning to tackle in his review."

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