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Remit of a sensitive inquiry

Sir Ron Dearing was asked to consider and advise on ways to strengthen, consolidate and improve the framework of 16 to 19 qualifications.

He was asked to have particular regard to the need to:

* maintain the rigour of A-levels * continue to build on the development of GNVQs and NVQs * increase participation and achievement in education and training * prepare young people for work and higher education * secure maximum value for money The Education and Employment Secretary also asked: "Is there scope for measures to achieve greater coherence and breadth of study post-16 without compromising standards; and how can we strengthen our qualifications framework further?"

In short, Sir Ron's brief is to play counsellor and match-maker to A-levels and GNVQs - comparable to sorting out two difficult characters' individual problems and then getting them to bond with each other.

He has to build a new system without scrapping the two large and unwieldy building blocks of A-levels and GNVQs which many teachers see as the main problems.

A-level standards have been a nagging problem for the Government, with repeated allegations that they vary across subjects and fall year by year - but ministers believe that A-levels are politically essential, and every attempt to replace them has foundered.

GNVQs have also been criticised as lacking rigour. They have provoked an outcry from teachers because of their intensive assessment regime.

The Government is also sensitive about low student achievement and high drop-out rates. Fifty-seven per cent of 15 and 16-year-olds achieve less than five GCSEs and many students drop-out of A-level courses having taken them in preference to the less well-known GNVQs.

The Association for Colleges (AFC) calculates that money spent on students who fail to complete A-level humanities courses alone each year would be enough to fund four medium-sized colleges.

On structure, Sir Ron's mission has been to fend off moves for more radical and politically sensitive reforms.

In October 1994 a group of influential organisations including three independent school bodies came close to calling for A-levels to be scrapped - despite the Government's commitment to retain them as a "gold standard".

The so-called "Group of Six" wanted a single national framework with "one popular title", and individually graded units of achievement, learned module by module.

It included the Sixth Form Colleges' Association (APVIC), Association for Colleges (AFC), and Secondary Heads' Association (SHA), the Headmasters' Conference (HMC), the Girls' Schools Association (GSA) and the Society of Headmasters and Headmistresses in Independent Schools (SHMIS).

The six have now been joined by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).

They said the existing system meant students chose pathways too early and many dropped out as a result and that the use of different language in A-levels and GNVQs created differences where none existed and prevented parity of esteem.

Within the group the college associations, closely followed by SHA, have been pushing for a curriculum broken down into hundreds of small units the size of current A-level modules or GNVQ units.

Sir Ron's task has been to head off this movement by making the existing qualifications less rigid without actually abolishing them.


The main recommendations made by individual groups.

The key players (exam boards, industry, teacher associations and colleges)

* assess core skills of communications, numeracy and information technology * introduce "horizontal AS-level" * create unified framework Associated Examining Board

* retain A-levels and GNVQs within single coherent framework * boost modular A-levelsmore coursework assessment * assess core skills separately Headmasters' Conference

* create national certificate with some "breadth" * launch overall "synoptic" assessment for modular A-levels Association for Colleges

* create national certificate with 21 graded units * create breadth through providing for "defining" and "complementary" choices * introduce points system for higher education Secondary Heads Association

* enable credit accumulation and transfer * merge SCAA and NCVQ * unify GCSEs, A-levels and GNVQs long-term Sixth Form Colleges Association

* create grouped national certificate as proposed by AFC * ensure core skills are of advanced level * provide credit transcript showing unit value of current courses and achievements National Association of Head Teachers

* create baccalaureate-style qualification for all * grade each component of qualification, not simply overall passfail * replace national targets with school-specific targets Confederation of British Industry

* introduce all core skills including team-working and problem-solving Trades Union Congress

* make team-work and problem solving mandatory core skills * work experience for 16 to 18-year-olds * keep core skills requirement out of NVQs National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education

* consider ending break in system at 16 * end competition, re-introduce local planning Association for Science Education

* provide certified "early exit" points from modular A-levels * provide a single unified framework City and Guilds

* encourage breadth * make NVQs easier to understand * reduce the number of NVQ awarding bodies

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