Partnership should have priority now

Sally Tomlinson

Sally Tomlinson argues that many teachers feel their voices are being ignored in the future development of 14-19 education.

Will 1995 become the watershed year in which the education and training of young people aged 14-19 finally becomes a serious priority? After almost 20 years of government initiatives there is still no sign of a coherent 14-19 curriculum, nor a rational system of quali-fications. This year, however, there has been dramatic government action. Sir Ron Dearing has been charged with reviewing 16-19 qualifications and bringing about a closer relationship between the academic and vocational worlds, and Gillian Shephard has become the first Secretary of State of a new Department of Education and Employment.

How can a coherent 14-19 curriculum be defined? What assessment techniques and qualifications are most appropriate? Should there be a separation of academic and vocational courses? These are questions that should be asked of teachers, but the Government has seldom bothered.

For this reason, the National Union of Teachers commissioned a pilot research project which sought teachers' views on 14-19 education. The project, directed from Goldsmiths' College, University of London, worked with six co-educational comprehensive schools - two in the North of England, two in the South, one in the Midlands, and one Welsh school.

They included two urban, two rural (one grant-maintained) and two mixed-area schools. The staff interviewed included headteachers, their deputies, heads of year, departmental heads, form tutors and class teachers. The majority had more than 19 years' experience and had spent over half their teaching careers in the schools. While results from small-scale projects must be interpreted with care, the teachers' views are a valid contribution to the debate.

Views on the curriculum: The teachers interviewed were all working hard to incorporate new vocational courses and qualifications into their schools, but they were unhappy with the divided system. They want to see a unified curriculum and assessment system for 14-19 education.

Ideally, they would like a broad, flexible curriculum for all students which encompassed a range of subjects and experiences; a breadth of knowledge and skills; the development of critical faculties; opportunity and choice for all; scope for individual learning; no early specialisation; no arts-science divide; and no academic-vocational divide. There was considerable support for a modular, flexible curriculum with core courses for all students.

The majority would prefer a curriculum in which all students chose both academic and vocational subjects which included work experience or work-related courses. There was some resentment at the imposition of a national curriculum into which they had minimum input, even the Dearing "slimmer" version of 1994. Many felt the curriculum should be developed in partnership with central and local government, governors, parents, and employers, with some input from students. Generally, they were opposed to selection at 11 or 14 and were overwhelmingly in favour of comprehensive schools, including grant-maintained comprehensives.

Views on the academic-vocational divide: The teachers recognised the existence of an academic-vocational divide in their schools but the majority did not agree with it, arguing that vocational courses should not be solely for the "less academic" but should be available to all 14 to 16-year-olds.

They recognised that post-16, "disaffected" students could be motivated by job-specific courses, but did not think this should be given undue influence in policy-making.

There was some dissatisfaction at the way GNVQs had been introduced. Their introduction was too hasty and in some cases not properly funded. Teachers felt they had not been adequately informed or consulted, and feared that GNVQs would widen rather than bridge the divide, particularly the pre-16 foundation courses. Despite this they were "struggling to make them work", as one teacher put it.

Assessment:The need to incorporate a break and a "final" examination at 16 was questioned. Half the teachers wanted changes to GCSEs. One teacher was adamant that "GCSE could be replaced by teacher assessment now that most children continue into further education. The money saved could be spent on resourcing schools properly".

Half the teachers also wanted changed forms of assessment at 18-19, but some blamed universities for insisting on A-levels as an entry qualification which inhibited the development of alternatives. There was support for some kind of credit accumulation through assessed modular courses between 14 and 19, and also for a move to a baccalaureate-type of examination which allowed students to take a broader range of subjects to 18 or 19. Even those teachers wanting to retain A-levels argued for broader-based or modular courses that reflected research skills and applications rather than traditional models of learning.

There was scepticism on whether, and for how long, a separation of A-levels and GNVQs could continue. The teachers were also very concerned that current assessment practices made it inevitable that large numbers of young people would fail. In particular, they felt that employers did not take seriously GCSE grades at D, E, or F level, or Records of Achievement. This led, as one teacher put it, to a "Kitemark effect A-C, D and below are demotivated".

There was also scepticism about the attempt in some schools to "raise the Ds to a C" for league-table purposes. Teachers at the Welsh school were very enthusiastic about the Welsh Certificate of Education, which emphasised pupil achievement rather than failure, and this certificate was identified as a possible model to motivate English pupils.

Equal opportunities: Teachers agreed unequivocally that all 14-19 students with special educational needs should be entitled to all present national curriculum subjects. They did not wish to segregate or exclude pupils, but recognised that without adequate resources, especially staff, it would be difficult to offer all students a broad curriculum.

Teachers thought schools would probably continue to exclude special or difficult pupils until a broad, modular curriculum with access for all at different levels was developed.

Despite evidence that some government ministers and their advisers are determined to remove race and gender from the educational agenda, this study indicated that teachers consider that it is impossible to offer equal opportunities unless they are addressed. Although the teachers came from different parts of the country, they all considered that the education of the next generation should incorporate deliberate policies and practices to eradicate racial or gender discrimination, raise awareness of the issues involved, and promote positive action.

They were also concerned that all schools should have good guidance and counselling systems for pastoral care, academic and careers guidance, and all staff should be given adequate training in these issues.

Further comments:Overall, teachers thought that schools were inadequately resourced to provide a proper education and they did not have the time to carry out their many duties efficiently, let alone time for thinking and planning. They thought the pace of change and the lack of consultation, particularly over the introduction of the national curriculum and GNVQs, had been detrimental to the quality of the nation's education and teachers' morale.

They did not wish to impose their views on others, however. In matters of the curriculum and assessment teachers feel partnerships should be created and that future developments in the education of 14 to 19-year-olds were far too important to be left to central government without widespread debate and consultation.

Professor Sally Tomlinson is dean of the Faculty of Education at Goldsmiths' College, University of London.

Copies of Teachers' Views of 14-19 Education - A Pilot Project, National Union of Teachers; Goldsmiths' College; Institute of Education, can be obtained by writing to the NUT, Hamilton House, Mabledon Place, London WC1H 9BD. Telephone: 0171-388 6191

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