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No student is a traffic island

Teenagers can choose one of three "highways" to a post-16 qualification but once on their way they cannot change course and there are no slip roads in case of accidents. John Dunford says Sir Ron Dearing must insist on major roadworks.

Sarah is 16. She has just got her GCSE results and is pleased with her one B and four C grades, but disappointed with her three Ds. After a week of talking things over with her parents, who want her to do A-levels, she goes to her school's sixth-form registration day.

The school advises her against a full course of three A-levels and points out that, since AS courses are of the same standard as A-level, they are an alternative. They discuss intermediate and advanced general national vocational qualifications and, with Sarah's GCSE grades, it is suggested that she could take an advanced GNVQ. But Sarah has not yet decided what she wants to do as a career and is reluctant to commit herself to one particular GNVQ.

The courses on offer at the local college are also discussed, but these do not provide a solution either. In the end, Sarah decides to take two A-levels and two GCSEs in subjects which she has not done before. The unsatisfactory compromise will be familiar to many tutors in schools and colleges. Sarah will have to work hard, because students with her GCSE grades do not have a strong record of success at A-level.

While Sarah's half-hour interview is taking place, many other prospective sixth-formers are registering for A-level courses and for GNVQs. They match their ability and aspirations to the courses on offer and are sufficiently confident - sometimes too confident - about embarking on a two-year course. Most recognise the commitment which they are making and they know that there will be little opportunity to change their choice, after the first half-term or so, without going back to the beginning and starting again.

In this annual scenario lies the problem of the structure of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds in England and Wales which Sir Ron Dearing is currently reviewing. The jungle of vocational qualifications (NVQs) is becoming clearer, but there is some way to go. The GNVQ has begun to fill the gap in the middle, but students cannot move between it and either of the other two paths if their initial decision proves a mistake. They are not, as Sir Bryan Nicholson, former Post Office chairman, once famously said, "three lanes on a single highway". They are three separate highways with no slip roads to safety when things go wrong. Yet students cannot be so neatly divided into three.

Most of the courses take two years and the perception is that students have failed if they do not gain a good grade at the end of it all. There is no interim accreditation or recognition of any of the work they have done. Success in a smaller number of modules cannot be banked and used elsewhere. Those who take longer than two years to achieve accreditation are less well regarded, yet schools and colleges may regard such students as being among their greatest successes.

All of these problems have long been recognised, not only by schools and colleges, but also by employers. There is a broad consensus about both the problems and the solutions. As we saw in his earlier report on the national curriculum, one of Sir Ron Dearing's special skills lies in being able to draw out the points of consensus and reflect them in the conclusions of his report. Thus, we have already seen in the interim report of his review of 16-19 qualifications a clear sign that he will try to bring the separate paths closer together, reduce the academicvocational divide, create opportunities for credit accumulation and transfer and introduce an interim accreditation by reformulating AS-level into a horizontal, rather than a vertical, half of A-level.

These are important and useful measures, but they reflect the way in which the terms of reference of the 16-19 review limit opportunities for change. Only if Sir Ron Dearing is prepared to put a broad interpretation on these terms of reference will his final report produce the long-term solution which schools and colleges would like to see.

As the Howie Committee recognised, when asked to do a similar job in Scotland, it is impossible to create a sensible system of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds without commenting upon what goes before and after. A satisfactory long-term solution in England and Wales will need to be set in a 14 to 19 context and will have important implications for adult learning too. A review of the post-14 qualifications structure is our best chance of creating a true system of life-long learning.

It may be, however, that such a radical approach, at this sensitive pre-election time, would meet the same fate as the 1988 Higginson Report which attempted to broaden post-16 studies. Perhaps it is more realistic to ask Sir Ron to recommend a two-stage process. First, to move as far as possible in the direction set by his interim report. This will tighten up the links between the stages and pathways so much that it will be a relatively small step to move to the second stage - a properly unified post-14 system.

The first-stage measures are clear, but may not all be easy to deliver without a degree of flexibility which has not hitherto been apparent: * The horizontal AS-level, taken by most students after one year, at a standard half-way point between GCSE and A-level, will be attractive to many, including Sarah. This can also be used to introduce much-needed breadth post-16.

* Modular A-levels should be encouraged.

* Stronger links should be created between GNVQ and A-level modules.

* There should be a single National Qualifications Authority.

* Examination boards should be encouraged to merge with vocational awarding bodies, so that assessment bodies offer the full range of qualifications.

* The tension between assessment models for so-called academic and vocational courses can be removed by the creation of a single Code of Practice.

* That damaging little document, Principles for A and AS level (School Examinations and Assessment Council, 1992), which constrained the system with its rules about synoptic assessment, should be consigned to its rightful place.

* Core skills should be made compulsory for all post-16 students. To achieve this, all core skills do not need to be embedded into every course. If they do not occur naturally within students' main courses they can be separately accredited.

* All level 3 courses can come under the generic title Advanced Courses and accreditation for achievement will then be on a single certificate. Whether this becomes an over-arching National Advanced Certificate depends on whether such a certificate would be greater than the sum of its parts. Unless it is, higher education admissions officers and employers will not give it credibility and hence students will not want it.

If Sir Ron can achieve progress in all of this, he will deserve our grateful thanks. If he can go beyond these measures and put down markers for a unified system of post-14 qualifications, he will have begun the process of establishing a system of qualifications which will last for a generation.

These longer-term aims would recognise that the principles which apply to post-16 education apply equally well at key stage 4: * A unified academic and vocational qualifications structure - not two separate systems.

* A consistent pattern of assessment which reflects the curriculum.

* Opportunities for credit accumulation and transfer, where appropriate.

* Greater emphasis on a modular approach, from which Dearing's "small steps" can be developed to raise achievement for slower learners and those with special educational needs.

* A broad and balanced curriculum including core skills.

Such a system would enable young people - including Sarah - to build up a portfolio of qualifications which truly matches their abilities and to which they could add later. It would provide a real basis for a system of life-long learning. With Government approval, this is largely being done in Scotland. It would be fitting if the newly-merged Department for Education and Employment were to approve the recommendations of Sir Ron's final report for similar measures in England and Wales.

John Dunford is president of the Secondary Heads Association and headteacher of Durham Johnston comprehensive school.

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