Concentration on the needs of students
The Government's consultation paper, "Qualifying for Success", builds on Dearing's criticisms of over-specialisation in 16-19 study. It is up to those of us who teach, devise syllabuses and set exams to ensure that our voices are heard in the consultation exercise.
Dearing was explicit in expressing concerns that the over-specialisation of A-level courses serves neither the candidates for university, nor those who choose to end their education at 18, nor the nation as a whole. His report is only the latest in a long line of reviews to draw this conclusion. The previous government developed plans to broaden A-levels, but the Conservatives proved unable to convince people that the internationally renowned quality of A-levels could be maintained. The question should be: can we create a Bac-style qualification which builds on the acknowledged strengths of the current arrangements?
Dearing's overarching certificate does not do this. Universities and employers will continue to look for the familiar. And as long as candidates receive separate grades for A-levels or GNVQs, they will be judged on those grades, not on the overarching certificate.
Yet there is still much to be said for broadening the area of post-16 study, as required by the predecessor to the A-level - the Higher Schools' Certificate. The decision to concentrate on just three subjects was made to help prepare candidates for the specialisation of English universities. But not all A-level candidates want to go to university, and not all those that do wish to specialise in single subjects. Today, A-levels form less an entrance exam for higher education and more a school-leaving exam, preparing students for employment. Candidates who see A-levels as the culmination of 13 years of education would benefit more from challenging, rigorous and wide-ranging study than from concentrating on just three, often very similar, subjects.
Why does it continue? The answer is that most students make their A-level choices with the possibility of further study in mind. The university admissions process is largely based on the assumption that candidates will take three subjects, so that is what most people do. There is no reason why we should not expect more from our sixth formers. Commentators estimate that the French Bac is as demanding as five A-levels, and in Singapore most candidates take five A-levels. (equivalent to five of our British A-levels.) Surely British teenagers are as able and as hardworking as their Singaporean or French counterparts? So broadening the curriculum can be achieved without abandoning the rigour of A-levels.
The new AS level and a GNVQ equivalent offer another way forward. This holds out the prospect of broader study programmes which embrace a range of theoretical and practical skills, without sacrificing the known quality of A-level standards.
Key skills are also a vital part of the equation. Whether people intend to be lawyers or to work in retail or manufacturing, the ability to communicate, to understand numbers and to handle computers are certain to be increasingly important. If the Government regards these courses as important, then they should reach an agreement with UCAS and the universities to make them a requirement for university entry. And we should also ask if the concept of key skills needs to be extended. This nation is notoriously poor at languages; maybe all 16 to 19-year-olds should be studying a foreign tongue.
The emphasis on the student's "portfolio", the most positive aspect of the GNVQ, has proved motivating for students of all abilities. This is one pointer to the way forward; another would be ensuring that A-level and GNVQ modules can be interchangeable.
If this Government's review of 16-19 education is to succeed where others have failed it must encompass the needs of all students seeking advanced study, whether academic or vocational. GNVQs should be recognised as just as demanding for students preparing for further study or the world of work. The challenge is not rigidly to segregate areas of study into "academic" or "vocational", but to encourage the development of a mix of theoretical and practical skills across a range of subjects for each student.