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Phase them out

THE GOVERNMENT has taken the first steps towards reforming A-levels by proposing that all A-levels should be made up of two 3-unit AS qualification blocks. This is intended to encourage students to take broader advanced-level programmes of study (up to five subjects in the first year).

GNVQs are also being reformed into 6 and 3-unit awards to parallel developments in A-levels and there will be a common five-point grade scale for both qualifications. This potentially provides greater flexibility for students to take a mixture of academic and vocational qualifications at advanced level. Furthermore, all students will be encouraged to take a key skills qualification in communications, application of number and IT.

But this is just the start and we think that there is a strong case for further reform. Although the changes outlined above have the potential to address the narrowness of most student programmes and divisions between academic and vocational qualifications at advanced level - long-standing criticisms of the English post-16 qualifications system - on their own, they are unlikely to be enough. It would be disappointing if, after a decade of proposals for reforming advanced level qualifications, nothing had changed and the deep-seated problems of a low-performing, divided and narrow 16 to 19 qualifications system persisted.

It remains to be seen how schools and colleges will use the rather limited reforms so far proposed. They may well ignore them and continue to offer narrow A-level or GNVQ programmes, unless there are strong incentives for them to do otherwise. It is envisaged that the reforms arising from the Government's consultation process will be supported by incentives such as inspection criteria, funding regimes and a reformed Universities and Colleges Admissions Service tariff.

However, these may not be enough to alter post-16 provision in most schools and colleges. Our research suggests that institutions are most willing to change when there is a very clear sense of direction nationally, so that they can see their institutional plans in relation to the bigger picture for the future. There is, therefore, strong support among practitioners for an overarching certificate, because it represents a powerful and attainable future vision.

This is why we are in favour of the development of such a certificate. An overarching certificate, which constituted the basis of an advanced-level curriculum for all students, could provide a strong incentive for breadth and mixing of study post-16. It could bring about real improvements in advanced-level study. To get the award, students would have to show evidence of attainment in a broad range of key skills, there would be a minimum volume of required study and, with the right design, there would be a balance between breadth and depth of study.

Such a certificate would provide immediate benefits for A-level students, many of whom take only two A-levels. However, we also believe that an overarching certificate could strengthen vocational education. GNVQs are neither sufficiently general nor sufficiently vocational. NVQs have been criticised for their narrowness and for not providing an adequate vocational preparation for 16 to 19-year-olds. An overarching certificate could allow students who want to specialise in a particular vocational area to do so, while still ensuring that they follow a broad general education. This would emulate practice elsewhere in Europe.

It would be vital that an overarching certificate did not end up being another addition to the already complex post-16 qualifications system. It would need to have sufficient currency and rigour to replace both A-levels and GNVQs as the basis of an advanced-level curriculum for all students. This could be achieved over time.

Meanwhile, the planned qualification blocks could be developed within the framework provided by an overarching certificate. However, whether it achieved its objectives would depend not only on arriving at a design to fulfil these purposes, but also on the willingness of higher education institutions and employers to recognise the added value provided by an overarching certificate.

If the A-level, GNVQ and key skill proposals are the first step in reforming the advanced-level curriculum, we see the development of an overarching certificate as the next. However, changing deep-rooted attitudes about advanced-level qualifications will take time and any overarching certificate model will need to be capable of gradual evolution. Moreover, it will also need to be responsive to future economic and social demands, so that it can form a strong basis for successful lifelong learning.

* Ann Hodgson, Ken Spours and Michael Young are academics at the Post-16 Education Centre, Institute of Education, University of London

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