The A-level has sifted students, devaluing those with vocational skills for too long. Mike Tomlinson now has a great chance to create a fairer system, writes Ruth Silver
For many educators, the qualifications system toils away like an old-time gold prospector, sifting and sieving, energetically discarding mountains of spoil to find a handful of fabulous wealth. Gradually, this is changing; over recent years we have discovered how to pick out smaller and smaller nuggets of learning. But we have always held fast to our gold standard, the A-level, as the best measure of worth.
Mike Tomlinson might take us the next step if the potential in the interim report of his Working group on 14-19 reform is recognised by the Government. We could, in 10 years' time, find ourselves with a diploma framework that locks the A-level into a wider context in which all learning is given currency.
At Lewisham college we know that the hard slog feels the same for a pupil reaching for a fistful of A-star grades, the apprentice building a portfolio and a student with learning difficulties filling in an application form for the first time.
Yes, the outcomes are utterly different and the aspirations appropriately varied. But the toughness of the individual challenges is very similar. We do not want a framework that discourages any of our three examples, or any of the millions whose futures are shaped by our exams system.
The Tomlinson debate matters profoundly. Its conclusion should leave us with a meaningful sense of parity across disciplines and a perspective over the four proposed levels of the curriculum.
With this century still young, we can cheerfully discard habits that suited previous ones. If we are not shoring up outdated social distinctions, we no longer need systemic disdain for vocationalism. We cannot allow young people to be given the message that, once they have failed academically, they can, aged 16, start again at the bottom of a second-best, work-orientated education.
Small wonder that trust in the system collapses for many of the 50 per cent of 16-year-olds who leave school without five good GCSEs. It is no surprise that disaffection begins eroding this trust in the years preceding the great exam fest.
The work of Tomlinson's group points, rightly, to the fact that we could now create an exchange rate between the two worlds, identify equivalence and let educational credit become our new standard. In this, he is restrained from going far enough: the opportunity to capture and celebrate learning should extend far beyond the age of 19, offering second (and third and fourth) chances throughout people's lives. In preserving the A-level, do we risk its enduring glitter outshining other, new qualifications?
We should also welcome the implicit shift from content to skills. The young people who turned away from literature that meant little to them are still competent readers when they devour complex manuals on child development or motor mechanics. The report's emphasis on learning communication and numeracy should also help us reduce the scandalously high numbers of adults with poor basic skills.
Among the report's other audiences, employers and university admissions tutors are essentially asking for the same thing. Both want to understand better the young man or woman sitting nervously in front of them. Both need a qualification system that gives them a lens for seeing the worth of the skills and attributes of their applicants. And it should be a lens that does not distort, a lens free of random opacities that can conceal both genius and a deep want of learning.
Without such insight, many decisions about people's futures are based on the all-or-nothing culture of the interview with its game of poker-faces, bluffs, gambles and hunches.
As things stand, it is a rare curriculum vitae that attests to its owner's ability to meet deadlines, fit into a team or write a report; it is these qualities (or their absence) that are only discovered after a decision has been made. Conversely, if such behaviours were actively taught and carefully accredited, our new generations of diploma-bearers would not have had this learning left to chance. Nor would its real-world value have been overlooked.
These simple employability skills do matter. They help make the difference for young people to live a life with choices rather than accepting it as fate. The final version of the diploma should, as suggested, include a curriculum for these skills as well.
We should remember how valuable young people's hopes are. It is our duty to build a new system that can test and describe the different ways in which they are precious. If the Tomlinson group can pick out the good ideas among the slurry of advice they will get, we could find succeeding generations more skilled, more equal and more prosperous.
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Ruth Silver is principal of Lewisham college, south-east London. Join the debate on Mike Tomlinson's reform proposals: firstname.lastname@example.org; or email@example.com