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Making it happen

It is easy to say that we need a new qualifications structure post-l6. People have been saying it for years. Report after report, peppered with references to parity, pathways, modules, credit transfer, core skills, and jungles, has attempted to reconcile the academic and vocational into a more coherent system for the sake both of short-changed young people and of the economy.

Nobody, however, has ever before done it - or at least done the detailed work necessary to turn the vision into reality. No-one, until now. The intrepid Ron Dearing is this week midway through a single-handed task which may yet prove to be the most complicated and difficult of his dedicated career. He has already exceeded his brief for the interim report by setting out a detailed consultation paper to get discussions going in the next stage, rather than simply stating the issues to be studied.

What he has to do is get the balance right between the needs of work and of education, and work towards a qualifications framework susceptible of development, starting from where we are now. And the view from where Sir Ron is standing shows the A-levels which have stood the test of time standing firm, with the most urgent task to get the quality and form of vocational qualifications right. Only then will it be possible to introduce a credible mix-and-match structure that will offer second (or first) chances to many more young people.

Of course, it was never part of his brief from Gillian Shephard to do much more to A-levels than stiffen their rigour, and this he will do alongside his checks on modularisation, but he was also asked for ideas to improve coherence and breadth post-l6, and this is where the complexities become unavoidable in a country blessed with such an embarrassment of qualifications, awarding bodies, and competing traditions. Though it is tempting to look for inspiration to Scotland, which is further along the road to integrated studies for the same age group, that is a smaller country with simpler structures, and the process is still taking many years from start to fruition.

Meanwhile, how do you work towards equivalence - let alone integration - of A-levels, the General National Vocational Qualification and NVQ, when they were all created for different purposes, and have different structures and assessment methods? The A-level is designed to test knowledge, the GNVQ process, and the NVQ whether you can do it on the job; A-level breaks down into six modules, GNVQ into l2 units, and the NVQ is different again; A-level has five grades, GNVQ three, the NVQ none. And then there is the consensus for core skills. At what level? In or out of exams? How many of them are practicable?

Grand political designs which cut through the arguments are all very well, but in the real world the grinding details about course content and equivalence have to be worked through and that - as Sir Ron and his counterparts at the National Council for Vocational Qualifications have already found out through their work on just three GNVQ courses for l4 to l6-year-olds - can be a painful process.

There are more positive moves on the credit side, however. The new alliances between exam boards and vocational awarding bodies should help the development of compatible courses where it matters, at the beginning, rather than trying to mix chalk and cheese later on. The timely merger of the education and employment departments under the proactive Mrs Shephard gives the enterprise a stronger impetus, and a merger between Sir Ron's School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the NCVQ may not be far behind. Meanwhile, Michael Heron, chairman of the NCVQ, is working mind-to-mind with Sir Ron.

They are up against time constraints and culture clash. The new vocational qualifications were developed quite deliberately as an alternative to written exams, to test the outcomes and competencies demanded in the workplace. But they have engendered scepticism and the dreaded tick-list, and now Sir Ron suggests that externally set and marked written tests (so recently negotiated for the part 1 GNVQs at l6) should be extended to the full GNVQ at all three levels, a major shift in philosophy.

On timing, no-one at the NCVQ would disagree that their qualifications have been expected to do too much too soon, and that the runaway popularity of the GNVQ in schools desperate for an alternative to A-levels came before they were ready. Now development and quality control are the priorities, and the horizontal AS-level will offer more choices.

As always, Sir Ron has trawled widely in search of consensus, and the proposals for an over-arching national certificate, and for a one-year AS-level, both came from the group of school and college heads who did so much to persuade Mrs Shephard that a post-l6 enquiry was essential. He is concerned, above all, to open up opportunities to young people rather than close them down, so that they have more choices, the chance for second thoughts, to move from one course to another, to be saved from drop-out.

None of this can happen overnight but, as Mrs Shephard herself is well aware, a sound vocational system alone takes a good 10 years to establish, and what is being attempted here is, in the end, far more ambitious. At last, someone has made a start.

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