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A marriage that must be considered with care

Noel Kershaw urges caution over the merger of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.

The consultative paper on the future of National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority has scarcely been a model of open government. It does not seem to have had wide circulation or promotion. Indeed usually well-informed people in education were unaware of its existence. This is a great pity because the outcome will be vital to education and training for everyone over 16.

Part of the reason for lack of debate may be that there is general agreement on the answer. The education world has been asking for some time for the Employment and Education Departments to be brought together and suddenly it happened. It therefore appears churlish to argue against the parallel marriage of the two major quangos overseeing curriculum and its assessment in the general and vocational education fields.

So far so reasonable, and having spent three years before the mast as a member of the National Curriculum Council I am all too aware of the dangers of overlap and demarcation arising from dual bodies, particularly if the split is between curriculum and assessment as in Sir Ron's alternative suggestion. Underlying support for merger is also arising from the impression being given that, while there are problems within the NCVQ, all is well at SCAA. This feeling is even promoting the idea of a take-over of the former by the latter, partly on the grounds of apparent difference in achievement and partly also of size differential.

While merger may be necessary, take-over is not only unhelpful but also impossible. Size alone militates against it since SCAA, like NCC before it, operates with only a handful of professional staff dedicated to post-16 matters. Both bodies have seen themselves at least until very recently as being principally concerned with matters 5 to 16. Within the NCVQ, on the other hand, the professional staff concerned with GNVQ post-16 alone is at least ten times greater and, more importantly, has a wealth of first-hand information about what is actually happening on the ground in individual schools and colleges.

Regarding competence, without wishing to start a slanging match, the bad press received by SCAA for their handling of National Age-Related Tests has been at least as great as that directed against the NCVQ, sometimes as a non-statutory body for matters outside its control.

Unless this merger is seen as the bringing together of two equals, valuable babies will be flushed away with the bathwater and the necessary continued boost to applied and vocational education will not be achieved.

For instance, concern has been expressed that a new body might actively promote courses such as GNVQ as the NCVQ does now. However, given that there is not a level playing field between GCSEs and A-level and the rest, the new body will have no option but to continue with some form of positive discrimination. Since this will happen within a single framework managed as a whole, differences which might occur in the current situation should be avoided.

The organisation resulting from the merger must have a new start and a new identity. On its board of management it must achieve a proper weighting between educational and industrial interests and a similar equilibrium in its operations. It would be greatly helped if the levy on NVQs achieved is removed. An expanded form of Section 24 of the 1988 Education Act is absolutely essential if the qualification jungle is to be tamed. Syllabus proliferation can only be reduced and quality assurance improved if the new body has statutory powers right across both general and vocational education full and part-time. In simple terms, NCVQ was partly set up to integrate the NNEB for instance into a coherent national pattern but it has not had the legislative teeth to do it. This must not be the case with the new body.

The fresh start reflected in such details is important. In my experience our national tendency to move forward from a general consensus without doing the hard groundwork first leads to disaster. Most of all however, it is essential that a National Council for Curriculum and Assessment should take a properly balanced view of its whole remit. Mechanisms must be in place for taking account of the needs and views of both education and industry and vitally its officers must be able to understand and develop differing approaches to curriculum and assessment which are proper for their particular context. A new body needs a new approach but not a new set of dogma. It should not destroy the past but must build on it.

Noel Kershaw is a former member of the National Curriculum Council

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