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The right vehicle to steer everyone towards the goal of lifelong learning

Tessa Blackstone (left) explains why the Government has embarked on another round of consultation over 16-plus

I recently compared qualifications to the engine of a car. They're not necessarily the most visible or exciting part of the system, but they need to be fully effective and reliable, and stand the test of time, if it is to work.

It is far from a perfect analogy, but there are other similarities. As with engines, there are some who can't resist tinkering with qualifications. There are many who find the working of the detailed components too complicated, but need to be able to rely on the whole system. And qualifications can be improved over time to keep up to date and respond to changing requirements.

Our aim is to secure high and consistent standards. We want to develop a clear and coherent framework, where the basic elements are widely understood. It must enable learners to choose programmes which meet their needs, and then to gain credit for their achievements. It should encourage more and more young people and adults to carry on learning throughout their lives.

Labour's manifesto committed the new Government to support broader A-levels and upgraded vocational qualifications, underpinned by rigorous standards and key skills. We have taken steps to fulfil this pledge. We deferred the introduction of changes to A-levels and GNVQs from next September, in response to widespread concern that these were being introduced without proper preparation. We have pressed ahead with moves to establish three "unitary" examination boards each offering a full range of GCSEs and AS levels and GNVQs.

We have established the new Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which puts responsibility for all qualifications outside higher education with one body. And we have introduced new criteria for NVQs, which will help ensure tougher standards of quality and more consistent and reliable assessment. NVQs are now a major plank in our qualifications system, especially for adults. Over half of all medium and large firms use NVQs - they are currently being awarded at the rate of 1,000 every day.

Of course, this is only a start. We are seeking views on proposals for the future of post-16 qualifications at Advanced level through the consultation paper "Qualifying for Success". I have been hugely impressed with the level of debate and interest this has already generated. Let me highlight three aspects of the consultation.

First, we want to secure agreement on how best to take forward Sir Ron Dearing's proposals for A and AS levels and Advanced GNVQs. In Opposition, we supported the thrust of the Dearing proposals and are keen to press ahead. We now need to clarify the outstanding points, including some important technical issues.

These proposals - covering issues such as grading, course work limits, changes to modular A-levels and the introduction of smaller GNVQs and the new AS - build on the strengths of the existing framework. They are intended to promote a more flexible qualifications system to fit in with different learning patterns and to encourage broader programmes of study. We are asking whether people judge that changes can be introduced from September 1999.

Second, we want to make Key Skills a part of everyone's learning beyond the age of 16. The Key Skills in Communication, Application of Number and Information Technology are about putting basic skills to work. The wider Key Skills - Problem Solving, Improving own Learning and Performance and Working with Others -provide vital underpinning for the challenge of modern life. A thorough grounding across the Key Skills will be a platform for lifelong learning. "Qualifying for Success" asks how we can provide that platform to more learners.

Finally, we have invited views on whether we should develop an overarching certificate to recognise achievement across different qualifications at Advanced level, and encourage breadth as well as depth of attainment. This could act as a clear and easily understood framework for a wide range of different patterns of achievement. It would help in our aim of breaking down the barriers between general and vocational qualifications. It could eventually become the main threshold for achievement at Advanced level, and progression into employment and higher education.

The consultation invites initial views on some of the main points, for example, how depth and breadth should be defined, how we would encourage take-up of a certificate; and the implications in terms of taught time for full-time participants to reach the required standard over two years. We shall certainly want to continue to work closely with those who have a direct interest or involvement if we judge there is support for proceeding in this direction.

A certificate would increasingly encompass existing qualifications, and would allow those who wished to pursue studies combining A or AS levels, Advanced GNVQs and NVQ units at level 3. We need to get away from the traditional, but increasingly outdated, rigid separation. In the modern labour market, people need to be "thinkers" and "doers", to be able to continue to learn and to apply their learning in a rapidly changing and increasingly technological environment. The high quality Modern Apprenticeship, combining level 3 NVQ qualifications and attainment in the Key Skills could, for example, provide the basis for a work-based route to achieving the certificate.

While this consultation deals with qualifications at Advanced level, this is only one part of a wider framework. This needs to recognise achievement and encourage progression right through from Entry Level to the very highest levels of attainment. Qualifications will play a critical part in supporting our crusade to promote lifelong learning. I shall, for example, shortly be launching the New Start Network which will support local partnerships to help demotivated young people regain the learning habit. Only by bringing all young people into learning can we create a truly inclusive society.

I am convinced that we must provide the opportunities for people at all levels of attainment to experience a real sense of achievement and recognition. A highly regarded, accessible and coherent system of qualifications is essential if we are to meet this aim. As the engine of our education and training system, I want qualifications to put everyone on the road to becoming successful lifelong learners.

s Baroness Blackstone is minister for further and higher education.

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