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New assessments are not ideal for a fresh start

WHEN I was a boy I grew up on air force stations. More or less every day, a group of airmen marched by, not quite convincing in their military discipline, but having to follow the rules. I was led to think about this in a recent conversation about qualifications and basic skills. The great debate that engaged the committee that produced A Fresh Start was about the necessity for testing. Some argued that all publicly-funded provision should lead to qualifications, secured through externally set and marked national tests. "Objective" qualifications would motivate the mass participation of people having difficulties with writing, reading and with numeracy. Others disagreed, and the happy outcome of the Moser report was a plural approach.

Achievement could be demonstrated by tests leading to qualifications. Alternatively, achievement could be assessed through portfolio-based work. As a literacy teacher, a long time ago, I felt the key to success lay in drawing on student experience and being alert to their purposes, and the contexts in which they sought to strengthen their skills. Building on this, learner and tutor had to make sure that skills were systematically strengthened. This approach had the merit of focusing on learning relevant to learners. I was pleased the portfolio route remained an option in the post-Moser report era. Or so I thought.

I was dismayed to hear this week that while this remains true at entry level, learners wanting a level 1 or 2 qualification have to take an external test, because the defining characteristic of a qualification, accepted by ministers on the advice of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, is that it includes externally set and moderated tests. Now, literacy students can still pursue studies, and have their work assessed outside the qualifications framework. But if, as an adult, you want to have your work assessed by other means you cannot have a qualification.

This would make sense if we had no means of securing rigour in other forms of assessment. But we do know how to do that. Of course, many people may welcome tests, but for others they symbolise a system of selection that has already failed them. Why don't things change? It is a bit like the airmen marching around the camps where I grew up. Their military competence lay in their technical skills, flair and capacity to interpret principles. Yet because marching was a precondition of other forms of military actiity they were obliged to march.

With David Hargreaves leading the QCA it may be time to revisit the definitions. His work in the Inner London Education Authority "Improving Secondary Schools" showed vividly that different aptitudes are strengthened in different ways. We learn more than one sort of thing, in more than one way. That is as true of literacies as of anything else. Perhaps ministers should ask QCA afresh if we can safely take a variety of routes, to different ends of equal quality, and measure them in different ways.

Thinking about childhood, I was reminded too of the fad for watching The Woodentops that obsessed my early teenage friends near Lincoln. I had just come back from Singapore, and was bewitched by rediscovering television, and the new choice of stations. I found it hard to understand why my friends wanted to watch a children's programme I'd left behind years before, when there might be a sports programme on the other side. Still, to be agreeable I watched too, without understanding my friends' enthusiasm.

For some reason, Chris Woodhead's resignation made me think about this. All that talk about what he has done to raise standards rings hollow for local authority based adult educators. Twelve inspections in six years hardly added up to a strategy for inspection driven quality improvement.

While the chief inspector inherited few resources to meet his statutory duty to assure quality in LEA-secured adult learning, he never asked for more. Yet as his annual lecture this year made clear, the slender evidence base on which OFSTED could draw was no inhibition to sweeping judgments about lifelong learning.

Perhaps now, with the new system just about to get into gear, we can look forward to a less adversarial relationship with inspectors. For me, at least their qualities as creative advisers make a far more effective contribution to quality improvement than their role as auditors. Both matter, doubtless, but the silent art of encouragement takes a lot of beating.

And so to Bryan Sanderson. He spoke at a conference of voluntary and community organisations working with adult learners earlier this month, and impressed me with his warmth, wit and willingness to learn. If the Learning and Skills Council he chairs can maintain those qualities the future may after all be better than the past.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

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