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Putting the learner first

The opportunity to reform the14-19 curriculum could benefit both pupils and teachers, says Mike Tomlinson

The Government's decision to consider reform of the 14 to 19 curriculum and qualifications represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to introduce change that puts the learner's interests first. In particular it provides an opportunity to:

* Plan coherent curriculum pathways which provide for access and achievement by all students.

* Have assessment which supports the curriculum and learning, rather than dictates or distorts them.

* Have qualifications that provide a more complete picture of students'

achievement, while providing differentiation for employers and higher education.

The present fragmentation of qualifications, with some 3,700 specifications and certification covering almost 850 qualifications, inevitably results in many 14 to 19-year-olds following curricula which lack coherence and where one element of study has little or no relationship to the other. Further, the acquisition of an appropriate level of performance in key skills of communication, numeracy and computing is achieved by far too few young people.

As a consequence, remedial provision has been introduced into undergraduate courses. Our students are no less capable of achieving level 2 in these skills than those in other European countries. However, up to 16, the only route open to the vast majority is GCSE in English and maths. This failure to ensure young people acquire essential skills is only part of the picture. Low staying-on rates, low level 3 achievement and a historical failure to deliver consistently high-quality vocational pathways or to stretch our most able young people, make the case for reform overwhelming.

It is against this background that the government-appointed working group has been asked to propose reform. Its progress report, published this week, sets out a framework for reform and raises some key issues that need to be resolved. The proposals would see students studying a coherent programme, made up of:

* Basic education, including the key skills of communication, numeracy and ICT.

* Specialist learning, covering subjects or vocationaloccupational courses.

* Supplementary learning. This will support specialist learning and include higher order skills as needed and the extra-curricular activities that develop the broader personal and employability skills.

The proportions of these components will vary, both between different types of programme and over the course of the 14 to 19 phase, with specialist learning increasingly more prominent. Meeting the student's needs, in order to help them progress and achieve, would be central. There should be clear progression routes to at least level 3 through a variety of different types of learning for all young people who are capable of reaching that level.

Local provision should be organised so that, wherever they study, young people can make the best use of their area's expertise and facilities. Much detail has to be worked out, but present GCSE, AS, A2 and vocational courses could well fit into the programmes; with new provision also necessary.

Once the programmes have been settled, then the assessment regime can be considered alongside the qualifications to be awarded. Assessment must be fit for purpose and support, not dictate, the modes of learning.

Appropriate assessment can encourage teachers to introduce "breadth" into studies in ways other than the study of more subjects.

Above all, there is an urgent need to reduce the assessment burden in absolute terms, not simply by moving the balance between external and internal assessment. This can be achieved through a framework of diplomas, each of which recognises a programme of learning at a particular level within a single qualification.

It is proposed to have four levels: entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced, with each having some form of dissertation, project (written or practical) or in-course study, possibly covering some or most of the programme's main components.This alone would reduce the burden of coursework, particularly at 16, where each GCSE has associated coursework tasks, so that a typical pupil is faced with seven or eight separate assignments, even though some or all of these develop and assess similar skills. Students should be able to move through the levels at their own pace and rejoin a programme by carrying credits already earned.

These design principles will ensure that the learner really is first. In developing detailed proposals, we intend to ensure the demands of the advanced diplomas will exceed those of two or three free-standing A-levels and provide better differentiation for employers and higher education.

There need not be any loss of depth of study, one of the strengths of our system. The reform agenda is a long-term project that must be put in place carefully over the next five to 10 years.

However, to those who believe the status quo is the long-term answer, I urge them to consider why so many of our young people do less well than their counterparts in Europe. It is notable that in many countries there is no obsession with external examinations, learning programmes offer breadth and coherence, and progression routes to level 3 are transparent.

Surely we can build on our strengths and take those elements of other systems suited to our culture and needs. The challenge is before us in our proposals. What do you think?

Mike Tomlinson is leading the inquiry into 14-19 education A questionnaire is available at

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