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Sir Ron's scrutiny holds nothing sacred

Ian Nash opens a three-page report on the Government's chief adviser's plans for an overhaul of post-16 qualifications. A-levels, for 41 years the gold standard for university entrance, will be subject to their most rigorous scrutiny yet under Sir Ron Dearing's review of qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds.

The chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority told The TES nothing was sacred in his bid to devise a framework which will give "diversity of opportunity and informed choice" and satisfy the social and economic demands of the country until well into the next millennium.

From the most able to the disaffected and those with learning difficulties and disabilities, "we need to lift the levels of achievement for all", he says in a consultation report on wide-ranging proposals for reforms affecting 14, 000 academic and vocational qualifications.

In his characteristically self-deprecating manner, Sir Ron insists: "I have invented nothing new here." Instead, he had drawn together the strands of current academic and vocational initiatives and proposals from a range of political opinion.

But in proposing detailed options for a national certificate to encompass all qualifications, he has gone beyond the remit given by Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard.

He was charged with advising Mrs Shephard on ways to maintain the rigour of A-levels, build on developments for General National Vocational Qualifications and National Vocational Qualifications, cut drop-out and failure rates and ensure value for money in preparing students for work and higher education.

Mrs Shephard also asked him to see if there was more scope for breadth and coherence and to advise her on whether more students should study the core skills of literacy, numeracy and information technology which are compulsory for those doing GNVQs.

Despite exceeding his remit, his proposals have nevertheless delighted Mrs Shephard who called the report "an excellent stepping stone to the next stage of the review. This will make the framework of qualifications better understood by young people, employers and those in higher education."

Proposals now out for consultation include a "family" of national certificates at three levels of achievement, reform of AS-level as an intermediate certificate between GCSE and A-level and more chance to mix and match courses or units from the full range of NVQs, GNVQs, AS and A-levels and the core skills.

The framework should also be flexible enough for full-time or part-time study at school, college or in the workplace, opening-up opportunities for lifelong learning, he says.

"Whilst the review relates specifically to 16 to 19-year-olds, the qualifications available to them will also be available to people of all ages."

His model for the advanced level national certificate is the single diploma proposed last autumn by the six leading headteachers' and principals' organisations representing the overwhelming majority of schools and colleges in England and Wales.

They insisted that the call to abolish A-levels was a distraction from the argument for getting vocational qualifications right and improving public understanding.

In a move which stymied critics on the political Right, they argued that a choice of assessment methods - whether traditional A-levels or newer competence and skills testing characteristic of NVQs and GNVQs - should be allowed free rein in the market-place.

Students could then, under professional guidance, mix and match assessment methods to suit their abilities and aptitudes, just as they would select units of work.

This is the measure adopted by Sir Ron in his interim report. He is wedded to A-levels which "are effective for the purpose for which they were designed".

But the report highlights concerns about a possible lack of rigour, variations in standards year-on-year and research suggesting that the introduction of modular courses might also have lowered quality.

All this will come under close scrutiny in stage two of the review, he says, adding: "I have no intention of watering down A-levels." The aim was not to demolish modular courses but improve the rigour. Further changes may be also be required to allow a mix and match with NVQs and GNVQs.

Plans for a national diploma were mooted by the Government in 1991 but no agreement could be reached on how to implement it. Sir Ron argues that the climate is now very different, with "a new consensus emerging across a very wide range of professional organisations and the three main political parties".

But it would not emerge overnight, he said. He is due to report on stage two next Easter after a series of major consultative conferences, targeted research and calls for evidence. He will then recommend a course of action "which would see progressive introduction over two years".

Mrs Shephard has said it would take up to 10 years to get vocational qualifications right. Sir Ron agrees. It is unlikely that serious reforms would start before 1998.

There is no common framework by which to judge parity of standards across the range of qualifications for the target group. The three routes to A-level, GNVQ and NVQ have different purposes and grading systems. Sir Ron is watching closely progress with a similar exercise in Scotland. However, being a small country with only two awarding bodies "it will not provide a blueprint for England", he says.

While Mrs Shephard has been willing to consider changes to A-levels, John Redwood, the former Welsh Secretary, and Michael Portillo in Employment were not. These obstacles have now been removed.

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