Sir Ron Dearing's report has been warmly welcomed, and rightly so. He has with his usual dexterity steered a skilful course between conflicting pressure groups. After more than 20 years of abortive attempts to reform 16-plus education, he has proposed a positive and viable way forward.
We applaud Sir Ron's aim to raise levels of achievement and the basis adopted for the report, choice and diversity within a coherent framework. The framework is shown most clearly in the proposed group of National Awards. These will give some welcome reward at Entry level to those who currently receive no certificate. They will also indicate the level achieved and also specify on each certificate exactly what its component parts are.
This may go some way to bringing parity of esteem to the "pathways" involved, though it cannot be the whole answer. As Sir Ron said, parity of esteem can only come from recognised parity of quality. This issue is being addressed for general national vocational qualifications and national vocational qualifications by the Capey and Beaumont reports. Let us hope that convincing evidence will emerge, and that that evidence can assist the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service in the construction of a persuasive and all-embracing tariff system to replace the current points system which is not merely arbitrary but also applies only to A-levels. This will be a difficult circle to square, but it is essential that it be done if GNVQs are to achieve real parity of esteem.
The proposed National Diploma is a valiant attempt to encourage breadth, but it remains to be seen whether it will "take off". There will be some for whom specialisation remains the correct and preferred course, and they will have none of it. Many more might be persuaded to aim for it if the requirement to get an A or AS or equivalent qualification in each of four domains were modified slightly. At the moment, mathematics and the sciences are all in one domain; if there were five domains, with mathematics in a domain of its own, and the requirement for the diploma were to qualify in four out of five domains, it would make much more sense for potential scientists, medical students and so on, and would still encourage significantly more breadth than the current system.
The relaunched and slimmed-down version of Records of Achievement, if properly designed, might play an important and useful part in selection for the next stage, be it higher education, further education or employment.
The Headmasters' Conference warmly welcomes the new horizontal AS levels - a proposal which we first put forward in 1990. They will contribute to breadth, be attractive to those not sure whether to commit themselves to a full two-year A-level, and provide interim certification for any who drop out or wish to change to another track. Similarly, the new proposal for a "half" GNVQ will also be good since it will enable students to follow a course containing two A-levels and also a vocational element We strongly welcome the support for S-levels and the other proposed provision for the most able. It is as important that these students are challenged as that proper recognition should be given to the slowest learners. We also welcome the provision at 16 for more testing work beyond GCSE level in mathematics through a more demanding full or half GCSE modelled on additional mathematics. It is essential that standards are raised in this area, not just for the benefit of future mathematicians but also for those intending to take sciences post-16.
The proposals for key skills - a much better title than "core skills" - are sound granted that it is possible to satisfy this requirement via a free-standing AS-level. We are relieved that the pressure to "embed" totally inappropriate key skills into A-levels willy nilly and to the detriment of the A-levels courses affected has been resisted. However, it remains to be seen what provision will be made for those who will have satisfied one or two of the key skill requirements via skills embedded in their A-level courses but not all of them. This problem must be solved, particularly if the free standing AS is to carry points for UCAS purposes.
So what concerns us in this report? It is a pity that AAS-levels, GNVQs and NVQs are preserved as three separate pathways; if they had not been placed in such watertight compartments, there could be exchange of modules and even some co-teaching. Certainly we would have wished to see options created for more credit accumulation and transfer between the different routes. We are concerned about the proposal that SCAA and NCVQ should consult and allocate subjects to one or other pathway. There is a serious danger here that, for example, it may be decided that business studies is "vocational", and should therefore only be offered as a GNVQ; surely there is room for two very different and equally valid approaches to subjects such as this?
The proposal to level up the standards of A-levels so that all are graded at the level of those which are currently judged to be "hardest" (whatever that means!) will need careful handling. While the CEM Centre research suggests persuasively that something needs to be done in the interests, for example, of those who wish to do maths and science A-levels and then apply to read law, any action must be taken only after analysis within subjects. Is the difference simply a matter of over-all grading, or is there a difference in the difficulty of getting lower grades which does not apply to the high grades? We look forward with interest to the report which is promised for the summer.
We also have concerns over the proposal to restrict the number of syllabuses and options in the interest of parity of standards. There may be a case for some reduction in syllabus provision, but this must not be achieved at the expense of valid diversity of approach. Valid educational arguments must not be made to give way to administrative convenience.
Further research is needed (and promised) on modular syllabuses. They make different demands from linear A-levels, but if properly constructed are equally demanding. We see no merit in the idea, aired as a possibility in the report, of allowing modularity only in the first A-level year and the imposition of a linear second year.
This would destroy much of the value of the modular approach, and would be a retrograde step. Indeed, we are sorry to see that the requirement for 30 per cent synoptic assessment in modular courses has been reinforced; such syllabuses are already more thoroughly examined than linear courses, and there is an inevitable synoptic element at the end of any properly designed modular syllabus because later work will build on and depend upon material covered earlier in the course.
On the other hand, the strong recommendation that there should only be two modular exam sessions a year is welcome since it will reduce the disruption caused in schools and colleges by the current varying patterns of examining. Granted this reform, the synoptic requirement might even be acceptable as long as it could be covered between the final January and June sessions.
I should hate to end on a negative note. It is essential to the future prosperity of this country that we face the challenge of the national training and education targets. Sir Ron has mapped out a way in which this may be achieved, and has also produced exciting suggestions for reform. The report is as good as we should have expected from Sir Ron; thanks to it, we now have a defined way forward. It is very welcome.
John M Moore is chairman of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference academic policy sub-committee