The background to Sir Ron Dearing's report on 16 to 19-year-olds is well known and much discussed: a rising sense of anxiety that Britain is surpassed by its main economic competitors, and that the country's system of education and training is in no position to respond. It is felt there is a lack of basic literacy and numeracy for all but the elite of British school-leavers, a large proportion of whom end up without qualifications, employment or training.
This is what Sir Ron Dearing's 700-page, multi-sectioned, report attempts to sort out. To do so he lays down two clear, but ambitious strategies. The first is to break down the "academicvocational" divide that has bedevilled previous attempts to move forward. Second, he attempts to emphasise the "key" skills of numeracy, "communication" and the use of information technology.
Dearing's analysis makes gloomy reading. There are, he says, "high levels of non-completion and wastage in post-16 education". One fifth of 17-year-olds is in neither education nor training. Nearly one third of further education students lacks basic literacy and numeracy. More than half the 280,000 on Government-sponsored youth training schemes fail to get any qualifications. And the nation is way off achieving its own, modest, educational targets, which have already been surpassed by Japan and Germany.
Meanwhile the current system of post-16 education seems powerless to help. It is, says Dearing, surrounded by "thickets of complexity and jargon". Only A-levels are given currency by the wider public, yet these remain unsuitable for a great many disappointed students who have to drop out. The unwieldy general national vocational qualification is racked with doubt about standards, and smothered in bureaucracy.
There is a "vast" array, a "maze" of qualifications, 16,000 at least. "The very names of the qualifications seem perversely selected to provide a barrier to memory and understanding," he says. "The general mass of employers are bewildered by the present range."
Sir Ron starts his gigantic task with a new qualifications structure, the chief point of which is to bring the - as yet little understood - vocational qualifications into alignment with A-levels.
This, if it is going to work, relies on a number of associated changes. In the first place, it means raising academic confidence in vocational education which Dearing hopes to do with more simplified, external testing. He suggests renaming the GNVQ the "applied A-level".
He then proposes breaking down both the A-level and the GNVQ into similar-sized chunks. There would be an important place for a reformulated AS-level (renamed the advanced subsidiary) and half-GNVQs, as both would give students an award after only one year of study. At present the advanced GNVQ, equivalent to two A-levels, is a major, two-year undertaking (renamed the GNVQ "double award" by Dearing). The AS-level will change, becoming in effect the first half of a full A-level.
He proposes that all students, at school, college and in the workplace, be eligible for new, over-arching certificates, including a National Diploma. This calls for a much greater element of common material than exists now. Dearing asks all the authorities to engineer this, and to cut down the number of complex syllabus variations.
And finally he insists that the structure should be easy to understand and memorable with a new vocabulary of National Awards common to all qualifications.
Most of his report hangs on this new framework. Dearing is committed to retaining much of what currently exists, including the three "pathways" or routes to qualifications: the academic (A-level); the school-based vocational (GNVQ); and the workplace national vocational qualifications.
But for each "pathway" he suggests four common national levels: advanced, intermediate, foundation and entry. These range from basic GCSE passes to A-level, including their vocational equivalents(see page 11).
The levels of clear comparability should logically let pupils take a mixture of academic and vocational courses rather than gambling on one or the other route at the outset, although the politically aware Sir Ron remains reticent on this point. Moreover they will receive credit, not only in the form of the GNVQs or A-levels they have passed, but with one or two over-arching certificates in addition.
First there is the National Certificate. This rewards students for the quantity of what they have achieved - quantities based on the National Training Targets. So the certificate will be awarded at advanced level for two A-level passes or a full (two-year) GNVQ or a full NVQ at level 3. There will also be a National Certificate at intermediate (GCSE) level.
In doing this Dearing hopes to give a major boost to Britain's faltering drive to achieve its National Targets (for example, 85 per cent of 19-year-olds to have five GCSEs grade A-C or the equivalent by the year 2000).
Then there will be the National Diploma, along the lines of the general diploma suggested by Sir Claus Moser's National Commission on Education. This is the closest Sir Ron comes to a baccalaureate and will certify not merely the quantity of exam passes, but will guarantee that the student has studied in both breadth and depth. The heart of the award is two full A-levels or a full advanced GNVQ or NVQ level 3. But students must have covered four general areas of study. These are science, technology, engineering and maths; modern languages; the arts and humanities, and the way the community works (including business, government, psychology and so on).
This mingling of the academic and the vocational and, in particular the breaking down of qualifications into manageable chunks, allows Dearing to tackle the issue of student drop outs. Courses should be more flexible, and allow students to start them in the knowledge that they will get credit for one year's work and that, moreover, they will be able to transfer to either an academic or a vocational alternative.
The structure also embraces those in workplace NVQ training, although here Dearing has left much of the responsibility up to employers. He says they should encourage trainees to study more widely, particularly in the "key skills". NVQ courses should include material to this end.
Youth Training will be relaunched as a system of National Traineeships. This is an attempt to eradicate the stereotype of a low-status scheme to mop up the unemployed. It will be run in partnership with further education colleges, offering NVQ qualifications and key skills.
The creation of a structure, and in particular the invention of over-arching qualifications, gives Dearing the means to achieve his second main objective: ensuring that all 16 to 19-year-olds receive credit for these "key" (formerly "core") skills of numeracy, literacy and knowledge of information technology. The new AS-level in "key skills" will play an important part.
Neither of the two new qualifications, the certificate or the diploma, can be gained without demonstrating achievement in this respect.
This reflects a long-standing concern, of employers in particular, that students on specialist courses fail to get the broader education that the economy requires.
DEARING 16 - 19
National awards framework, giving equal status to academic, applied and vocational qualifications
Emphasis on developing key skills of communication, numeracy and information technology in schools, colleges and work-place
Legislation to bring together the work of the two quangos responsible for education and training qualifications (SCAA and NCVQ)
New AS-level to represent the first half of A-level syllabus. New applied AS level
New AS -level in key skills
GNVQs to be renamed applied A-levels
Review of A-level standards
Greater emphasis on special papers and assignments for gifted students
Separate grading for mental arithmetic in GCSE maths
Study at college or workplace for disaffected 14-year-olds
National traineeships to replace Youth Training
Restructured and relaunched National Record of Achievement