Aiming higher than Dearing?
The Dearing report has brought 14-19 qualifications to another watershed. The last was the 1991 White Paper Education and Training for the 21st Century which established a national triple-track qualifications system.
Now, for the first time we have overarching certification at different levels to broaden student programmes.
A week prior to the publication of Sir Ron's report, the Labour party launched its proposals for reforming the 14-19 curriculum, Aiming Higher.
In important respects the two documents occupy the same terrain - a framework approach to qualifications, emphasis on rigour, encouraging breadth, the merger of School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the National Council for Vocational Qualifications.
However, a closer look reveals that they are pointing in significantly different directions. The main focus of the Dearing report is the development of a coherent national framework covering all present qualifications but keeping the three distinct tracks (A-levels, general national vocational qualifications and national vocational qualifications) and, in some ways, creating greater distinctions between them.
Dearing's dilemma is the tension between two objectives - providing distinctively different curricula for students with different abilities and trying to ensure that they are equally valued.
His answer is to introduce an overarching framework of certificates and diplomas to establish parity of esteem between academic and vocational learning and to increase the amount of external assessment in GNVQs.
His framework approach is essentially a way of increasing choices within the system as a whole while preserving A-levels.
Aiming Higher also starts with the idea of an overarching framework. However, it is presented as a first step towards a unified system in which diversity would be expressed in the range of modules (along the lines being developed in Scotland) and the separate tracks would eventually disappear. Implicit in Aiming Higher is a recognition that parity of esteem will only be achieved when students have a larger common component in their curricula and when the pathways operate within the same assessment and grading systems.
The proposal for a national framework in Aiming Higher has more in common with Higher Still, the Scottish model for post-16 reforms, than the three qualification tracks in England which Dearing seeks to retain. The key similarities are shown in the table below.
On a number of key points the Labour party document takes a quite different view from Dearing. Notably on modularisation, review of NVQGNVQ design, establishing a credit framework and modular bank, extended study time, grade alignment and coursework assessment.
If these proposals were implemented by a Labour government it would mean a broader education for all and an improved vocational route and therefore it would have the basis for a substantially better system.
The key weakness in the Dearing report is its voluntarism. Post-16 schools and colleges will be able to choose to continue with A-levels and GNVQs and whether to offer the proposed new certificates and diploma.
Here lies the possibility of proliferation of certification and increased confusion. In Aiming Higher there is also some ambiguity as to whether all students will be required to broaden their A- level study and extend study time.
In government Labour is likely to have to face up to the policy alternatives: whether to find incentives to encourage greater breadth of study or to make greater breadth a requirement for all students.
As it stands, the comparative analysis in the table suggest that there is sufficient common ground between Dearing and Aiming Higher for Labour to build on the framework proposals and to take "stakeholders" along towards a more unified system.
The authors Ken Spours and Michael Young are based at the Post-16 Education Centre at the Institute of Education.