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Pace of post-16 reform quickens

Merger of departments paves the way for radical changes outlined by Sir Ron Dearing. Ian Nash and Clare Dean report

Gillian Shephard has given the go ahead for sweeping reforms in post compulsory education, nine months before receiving final recommendations from her chief schools adviser Sir Ron Dearing.

Major changes are looming for the Education and Employment Secretary's department in order to pave the way for a new single framework for all post-16 qualifications from next year. Responsiblity for the curriculum for all pupils and students over 14 will also come under a single DFEE director.

The merger of bodies overseeing academic and vocational qualifications is likely to follow swiftly.

The departmental changes will make it easier to push through the reforms to be proposed by Sir Ron, chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, in his final report on post-16 school and college qualifications due to be published next Easter.

Proposals in his interim report this week include a National Certificate encompassing A-levels and all vocational qualifications, fewer A-level syllabuses, a drive to raise standards and greater flexibility for students to pick and mix study units.

The political will to take full advantage of the newly-merged department became apparent the same day when Mrs Shephard promised initiatives to take disaffected teenagers out of the classroom and into work.

Stressing that proposals were in the early stages, she said the Government had to build even further on the Part 1 General National Vocational Qualification, which gives pupils work experience and training from the age of 14.

With pilots due to start this September, Mrs Shephard said the new Department for Education and Employment would be better placed to develop such initiatives in the future. The merger presented an opportunity to bridge the divide between the academic and the vocational and to get employers and the business community working with all those involved in education.

She told the Council for Local Education Authorities meeting in Brighton: "In the education system maybe we tended to ignore the ultimate job needs and destinations for most young people progressing through education.

"And in Employment perhaps we were so obsessed with output that we ignored the means and processes to the extent that our ultimate ends were not so well achieved. We now have the opportunity in the merged Department to get the best of both."

With John Redwood and Michael Portillo, the former Welsh and employment secretaries, out of the way following John Major's reshuffle, Mrs Shephard has lost no time preparing the DFEE for reforms that they would have opposed.

The intention appears to be to have one directorate dealing with qualifications. And despite the fact that higher and further education have been divided between two ministers (Eric Forth and James Paice) the two areas will come within one directorate. Both will be dealt with in the unit that takes on youth training and all 16-19 issues.

A Green Paper on universities is due in December, following the Government's major review for the 21st century. It will be extended to look at the implications of both the new post-16 education and training directorate and the recommendations of Sir Ron.

Moreover, Mrs Shephard will be able to deal with the vexed questions of funding students and courses in further and higher education within a single directorate.

Sir Ron is also aware of the impossible barriers he faces if responsibility for education and training remains fragmented. He needs a single "qualifications authority" if he is to achieve an assessment system which gives credit for what students achieve on short courses, if they change subject or leave prematurely.

Schemes designed to cope with this - known as credit accummulation and transfer - have proliferated in further and higher education, but a national scheme is needed. However, a report out this week shows that such attempts have so far failed because universities and colleges have vested interests and have jealously guarded local schemes.

Sir Ron, who was chair of the Higher Education Funding Council for five years, told The TES: "We must not allow this to happen in schools and colleges. "

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