The trouble with being Sir Ron Dearing is that everyone has justifiable expectations of your success. Handed a review of 16-19 qualifications to carry out, the hope was that he would be able to expand it into a more thoroughgoing reappraisal than the stiffening-up exercise that ministers had asked for.
By the time he reached his interim report in July, Sir Ron had some cautious warnings for those who hoped that an imminent integration of A-levels and vocational qualifications was available. His message then was that any possibility of candidates mixing and matching modules for a wider choice of pathways was unrealistic. A-levels, national vocational qualifications and GNVQs were constructed in different ways: units of different size, shape and number; different assessment. The reputation of A-levels had been established for years, whereas NVQs remained controversial and the GNVQ was still too new to have settled down. There was much levelling- up to be done before convergence of quality or integration of content could seriously begin. It would take time.
With quality reviews under way, however, Sir Ron's interim report did reveal his own ambition to work towards some overarching diploma or certificate, that would recognise achievement in both academic and vocational awards, plus the ubiquitous core skills. Alternative models were endorsed with enthusiasm in the consultation just ended, though with some disagreement between groups of heads, college principals, employers and universities, How should depth and breadth be balanced; should A-levels be incorporated or dethroned?
It is a debate which may now prove academic, since it appears that ministers have renewed their earlier insistence that the main point of the exercise is to strengthen A-levels rather than emulsify them, while taking urgent measures to improve the quality of both GNVQ and NVQ. Any idea of an overarching certificate which recognises both academic and vocational achievement seems to be almost as alarming to the Department for Education and Employment as threatening the future of the "gold standard" A-level, so long as it remains insecure about the quality of the vocational qualifications.
Any idea of a national certificate, in short, may have to settle for breadth, rather than any serious mix of academic and vocational, which could let in a clutch of one-year AS-levels alongside A-levels or even a baccalaureate approach, but without over-arching the different pathways as many had hoped.
This time Sir Ron will find it impossible to please everyone, though with his usual canny approach he could push the pieces into place so that any future attempt to create a coherent framework would start from a more feasible position. The more genuine parity created between A-levels and GNVQs, the greater the opportunities for real change.
That may be what frightens the Government and also what emboldened Labour spokesman Bryan Davies to suggest this week that A-levels might be phased out and replaced with an overarching certificate in perhaps 15 years. That timescale might fit a Dearing scenario but wasn't exactly what his leader was saying more diplomatically to the Confederation of British Industry on the same day. Tony Blair talked about broadening A-levels, strengthening the GNVQ and moving towards an overarching certificate. That struck a chord with the CBI, and may prove very much in line with Dearing.