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Not overarching enough

An opportunity for radical reform of 14-19 qualifications is being thrown away, according to Ken Spours and Michael Young

THE OVERARCHING certificate outlined in the Government's consultation document "Qualifying for Success" represents an ideal opportunity to reform qualifications at 14-plus - something for which most of the education profession has been arguing. In the document, the proposals for overarching certification are presented as a bit of an afterthought. They need to be given a much higher profile if they are to be a genuine shaping force for the future.

With characteristic caution, the Government states that it intends to work towards an overarching certificate in the longer term. There are heavy hints that this is likely to take place in its second term of office.

In the meantime, "Qualifying for Success" focuses on the Government's more immediate commitments to "broaden A-levels", "upgrade vocational qualifications" and introduce key skills for all students at advanced level. The problem with this approach is that it lacks any clear sense of purpose. No one really knows whether the Government wants to reform A-levels, why it thinks they should be broadened or what it really means by "upgrading" vocational qualifications. Key skills, though enthusiastically supported, remain all things to all people. These issues would be less of a problem if the Government were clearer about its long-term aims. Short-term measures would then be guided not only by the practical needs of today but by the design requirements of tomorrow.

Despite the Government's excessive caution, the section of "Qualifying for Success" on overarching certification could be an important signpost. It suggests that overarching certification might be more than just a collection of existing qualifications and would need to: * encourage both breadth and depth of study, including the recognition of key skills; * be differentiated and graded; * be available to full and part-time learners; * be "properly structured" and based on rules of combination; * encourage accumulation over time; * be attractive to both higher education admissions tutors and employers.

There is an ambiguity here, however. The principles for overarching certification hover somewhere between new certification, which would "overarch" existing qualifications, and a "single" certificate, which would become the primary qualification.

A system of overarching certification will only be credible if it is designed with the intention of ultimately replacing A-levels, GNVQs and other vocational qualifications. This means that any interim proposals would need to point in the direction of a single system of certification. This could be achieved through the following: * A new title to represent both breadth and depth of achievement at 18-plus. We suggest Advanced Diploma, with the focus of a student's studies identified, eg Advanced Diploma (Electrical Engineering) or (Humanities).

* The Advanced Diploma as a "high volume" award to embrace both fast and average learners. Increasing "volume" would mean study time of 22-24 hours per week for full-time learners (an increase of six to eight hours on average). This would have four advantages. First, it would recognise the need for more study time, as the Government does in "Qualifying for Success". Second, it would set standards for a high level of achievement, with the possibility of fast learners taking post A-level modules. Third, it would provide curriculum space for both breadth and specialisation. Fourth, it would provide support for average learners who might complete their studies in three rather than two years. Consideration could also be given to an Advanced Certificate awarded for those who achieved advanced level but at a lower volume (eg, two A-levels). Such students could opt to top up their certificate later to obtain the full diploma.

* Clear guidelines in the form of rules of combination. Students would undertake a broad-based first year with the opportunity for more specialised study in the second (and in some cases) third years. The guidelines would need to be flexible enough to be adapted for full- time and part-time students.

* The Advanced Diploma could be created out of three-unit AS and GNVQ "building blocks", which could support flexible combinations within an overarching framework. Common assessment and grading principles would also be necessary.

A more radical long-term goal is needed to inform the current debates. It would almost certainly mean slowing down the overall reform process. A further year of consultation is needed to embrace not only the issue of overarching certification but also a 14-19 approach to qualifications. A delay now is preferable to rushing through proposals which later are found not to work. If the process of consultation is to lay the basis for the eventual replacement at 18-plus of A-levels and existing vocational qualifications, key stakeholders such as employers and the universities need to be involved. That will take time, but we are convinced it will pay off.

* Ken Spours is a research officer-lecturer and Michael Young head of the post-16 education centre, Institute of Education, University of London

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