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New national certificate would be a step too far

Sir Ron Dearing's great achievement with the national curriculum was to make it workable by simplifying it. With education 16-19, on the other hand it looks as if he is seriously considering complication. Alongside, and as an alternative to free-standing A-levels, general national vocational qualifications (GNVQs) and national vocational qualifications (NVQs), he may well recommend a national certificate.

This would be his way to accommodating all those worthy bodies who have been urging on him the advantages of "breadth". There is little consensus, however, as to what it is or how to provide it. In some cases, the wish is to span the academic and vocational, and, in others, the arts, sciences and social sciences. Some see "core skills" as adding breadth, but the term is used in many different ways.

A number of versions of a national certificate have been canvassed, but the one that seems to be favoured would consist of two A-levels, three new AS-levels - reformed to be a halfway house to A-levels - and three so-called core skills. The subjects might have to come from different domains to give a combination like French and maths at A-level, physics, history and drama at AS-level, plus communication, numeracy and IT.

A-levels, themselves, would be left unchanged and it would be open to students to take them and universities to select on them. Equivalent versions of the national certificate could be worked out for GNVQs and NVQs though they are already grouped awards. At least one of the subsidiaries for the A-level variant of the certificate might have to be taken from the GNVQ or NVQ pathways.

As skilful a compromise as this might appear to be between Sir Ron's original remit - to maintain the rigour of A-levels and improve GNVQs and NVQs - and the clamour for breadth, it still has a desperately untidy look to it. Young people considering what to do post-16 already face a plethora of confusing options. Adding a certificate, unclear in its rationale and of uncertain value to higher education and employers, would only seem to compound that confusion.

The problem with breadth post-16 is not that it is such an obviously good idea that it must be imposed on everyone, but rather that there are not at present sufficient opportunities for those who want to pursue it to be able to do so.

While three or four A-levels cater perfectly well for those who want to specialise, they do not allow much room to spread oneself. Increasingly young people are tending to mix the arts, sciences and social sciences at A-level, and more now do this than take the sciences alone. But across just three subjects the combinations can be arbitrary and idiosyncratic, for example, French, chemistry and sociology, and no provide an adequate platform for progression to higher education.

Sir Ron would appear to have found a way of increasing opportunities for breadth by changing the nature of the AS-level. In its present form as a vertically split A-level it has not taken off. However, if it became the first year of a two-year course, then five subjects could be taken in the lower-sixth to AS-level, with three or more continued to A-level. The great advantage of leaving the reform at this point rather than prescribing the A-levels and AS-levels to be taken would be to cause all students to think seriously about breadth without forcing a particular version of it upon them.

Qualifications post-16 have to reckon with wide differences in the abilities and interests of individuals. Some have particular strengths, others are all-rounders. The jobs to which they are heading, with or without more education, differ considerably in their requirements. To come up with a single award to meet all these needs would seem to be a tall order.

Much better in my view to devise a system to run on national choices. For that to happen the purposes of A-levels and GNVQs would have to be clarified. Why should, for example, someone take A-level business studies rather than the business GNVQ, or the science GNVQ rather than science A-levels?

Similarly why should someone take the hospitality and catering GNVQ rather than one of the catering and hospitality NVQs? There should be clear and unambiguous answers so that young people have a sound basis for the difficult decisions they have to take.

Existing qualifications would also have to be significantly improved. If we had good and equivalent opportunities for academic study through A and AS-levels, applied learning through GNVQs, and occupational training through NVQs, there might be a case for an overarching, rather than a competing, certificate at age 18, but this would only make sense if it built on what went before.

The argument for a grouped award at age 16 is stronger because while 44 per cent of the age group now reach five GCSEs at grades A-C only 27 per cent include English, maths and science among them. A certificate at the end of compulsory schooling could be used to underline the importance of achieving passes in these core subjects.

Grouped awards at ages 16 and 18 have been mooted before in White Papers, but neither has been implemented due partly to the difficulties of designing them and partly to the costs.

These are difficulties for the proposed new certificate also. Most of what Sir Ron is seeking to achieve towards breadth would be met by the recommended reform to AS-level.

The proposed new certificate seems a step too far: a needless distraction from the urgent task of getting the fundamentals right in education 16-19.

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