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Sir Ron looks on the bright side

DEARING AND BEYOND: 14-19 QUALIFICATIONS FRAMEWORKS AND SYSTEMS. Edited by Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours. ISBN: 074942160 (pbk). Kogan Page, Pounds 14.99

This book relies on an optimistic reading of Sir Ron Dearing's review of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds. The contributors are mainly academics, half of them from the London Institute of Education Post-16 Centre, which influenced the New Labour think-tank, the Institute of Public Policy Research, to make an argument in 1990 for a British baccalaureate.

However, writers also include the self-critical Tim Oates, former director of research at the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, and Geoff Stanton, the former head of the Further Education Unit, who reiterates his proposals for a common currency of unit-based qualifications.

Tony Watts from the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling also shares a chapter on student guidance, while Professor David Raffe demonstrates as usual the advantages of broad Scottish Highers over narrow English A-levels.

Meanwhile, Michael Young, Tom Leney and Ken Spours add particularly well-informed chapters on the strengths and weaknesses of A-levels and GNVQs.

In fact, here is everything you need to know on the crucial issues of unitisation, core skills, vocational as against general qualifications, competence-based assessment and value-added schemes, all placed within a vision of a step change, as the editors call it, towards a unified academic and vocational system.

Despite this shared consensus, there are different emphases among the contributors. Lorna Unwin's advocacy of a work-based route, Using Modern Apprenticeships, for instance, sits uneasily alongside the centralised model Andy Green admires in France, with its core of examined academic knowledge, though, to judge from the present Government's approach to schools, the latter would find favour with them.

But in the last of the 13 chapters the vision informing the book comes together, earlier drafts of this chapter being reportedly dictated into a tape recorder for David Blunkett, copies of which now sit in Baroness Blackstone's in-tray.

Yet the notion that Dearing's second review "provides a possible platform for future change" is doubtful, given that it clearly set out the sixth forms as the royal road to quality higher education, while Dearing's first review relegated to further education those who fail the academic national curriculum.

To establish a unified system means laying the great axe to the root of the A-level gold standard, and the authors advocate this via gradual modularisation. But will New Labour ever go so far while it is wedded to academic standards? Meanwhile, what of the most pressing crisis in education: the imminent collapse of the whole FE and sixth-form college sector?

There is unfortunately nothing on this in this otherwise excellent but perhaps unduly optimistic book.

The writer is co-author with Bill Bailey of The Business of Learning, Staff and Student Experiences of Further Education (Cassell 1997)

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