A clearing in the jungle

26th April 1996 at 01:00
Sir Ron Dearing deserves high marks for his bid to bring order to post-16 education chaos, says David Hart. Some of the comments on Sir Ron Dearing's 16 to 19 review of qualifications were somewhat naive. The most radical, and probably desirable, approach, containing one pathway to a single qualification, with separate levels, was never on the cards.

Sir Ron could not deliver a report which the Government would reject. Gillian Shephard, the Education and Employment Secretary, could not afford to receive a report which she was forced to repudiate. Those who forget the shambles surrounding the reception of the Higginson Report have short memories. As Mrs Shephard's press statement, in response to the Dearing review, made blatantly clear, her objective was, and I quote, to maintain the position of A-levels as the gold standard".

Clearly, it is regrettable that this thesis should have been allowed to dominate but we should recognise those "mercies", both small and great, which flow from Sir Ron's deliberations:

* a new national framework for qualifications at four levels will provide a single national certificate of qualification. Backed by a Universities and Colleges Admissions Service unified points tariff, this should enable students to pursue their chosen pathway, to cross over between A-level, AS-level and general national vocation qualifications and, indeed, follow more than one pathway if they so wish. Equally importantly, it ought to assist employers with their understanding of the current jungle of qualifications. Employers' ignorance of the meaning of GNVQ, in particular, was never bliss. Now there will be no excuse;

* an emphasis on key skills of communications, application of number and information technology for all students, with recognition of achievement built into the new national certificate and diploma. This is crucial, not just in the context of broadening, but of the development of all students post-16. The Commons education select committee made the crucial mistake of believing that key skills were only remedial in nature. This is not the case;

* the renaming of advanced GNVQs as "applied A-levels". It is absolutely vital that GNVQs have equivalence" with A-levels. Equivalence, a far better expression than the over-used parity of esteem, has to be earned. Changing the name will not, of itself, achieve this end but, combined with more rigorous vocational awards, it will be a major step in the right direction. The existing two-tier system must not be perpetuated;

* reformulated AS-levels to replace the existing discredited AS-level system. These new exams, which can be taken at 17, should encourage breadth of study and provide for the needs of a substantial number of students for whom the full A-level is not appropriate;

* reforming and relaunching Youth Training as a system of national traineeships, providing progression to modern apprenticeships and NVQs. The standing of Youth Training is too low and the completion rate is far too modest. The new approach ought to lead to higher motivation and better recognition of achievement;

* the relaunch and revision of the national record of achievement. The NRA has suffered from lack of employer recognition, particularly in small and medium-sized firms. Students are uncertain of its use for job applications. Its exciting potential remains largely untapped. It has to become a vehicle for students to record their achievements, plan their future learning and use as a tool for lifetime learning. The enthusiasm of many schools and colleges for the NRA needs and deserves the positive support of employers. Sir Ron's plans should underpin its future development.

Obviously Sir Ron could not risk too revolutionary an approach to post-16 reform, but in one vital area his proposals court failure. Excessive specialisation has been the besetting sin of the English system. The new national advanced diploma, to recognise achievement covering four broad areas of study, including the key skills, is the Dearing solution.

The National Association of Head Teachers supports the concept of the national diploma but has serious reservations about the model. First, the diploma is not compulsory. Accordingly, it will fail to deliver breath for all. Second, the constituent parts of the diploma are over-prescriptive and likely to dissuade students from attempting it.

Previous attempts at a voluntary approach failed because employers and universities had to be totally behind it. Students need to see its value and feel they have a reasonable chance of success by taking up the voluntary option. Instead, in order to obtain the national diploma, students will have to show high achievement in four areas of study without any choice. If Sir Ron's model is to work, mathematics should be separate from sciencetechnologyengineering, and performance be accepted in three out of the five resulting areas of study (or four out of five in certain combinations which are too narrowly focused). Above all, employers and universities will have to throw their weight behind the diploma, otherwise it will go the way of previous unsuccessful attempts to broaden in the face of parental and student apathy.

Needless to say there are many other issues which emerge from such a wide-ranging report. The moves to ensure that standards are being maintained at A-level, not least in science and maths courses, should be scrutinised closely. If the take-up in science and maths is disappointing, will higher standards not worsen the position further? The training needs of teachers of 14 to 19-year-olds will have to be addressed. They cannot be provided on the cheap. The management problems for schools and colleges must not be ignored if the reforms are to be introduced successfully.

It would have needed the wisdom of Solomon to satisfy all shades of opinion when addressing the task of bringing coherence to the jungle of post-16 qualifications. Sir Ron never stood a chance of emulating Solomon, but he deserves high marks for his plans. It falls to the present Government, or one of a different persuasion, to drive through the reforms with maximum consultation and with all reasonable speed.

David Hart is general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers.

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