Dearing pledges a review built to last
Education and training and the qualifications to which they lead, benefit from stability. The cost of change is high. It draws effort away from teaching and learning. It reduces knowledge of, and support for, qualifications among employers.
Probably at least 10 years are needed before a qualification becomes well-known and understood by the community at large. The need for stability suggests that the second stage of this review should aim to provide a framework which has the prospect of a life of many years. This in turn means that it has to provide scope for responding to the developing needs and opportunities of the next decade.
While the review relates specifically to 16 to 19-year-olds, the qualifications available to them will also be available to people of all ages.
In a society that needs to commit itself to the practice of lifelong learning, this means that the structure of qualifications must be suitable for people who learn in a whole range of ways, whether through courses in educational institutions (including part-time and short courses) at their workplace or elsewhere.
In particular, it must meet the needs of people who pursue their education and training on a part-time basis, and whose studies may be interrupted by the needs of their families or their work. Such people need to be able to carry forward credits they have gained towards a qualification when they move to a different place, job or course.
The national system of qualifications should therefore include the opportunity to gain credits for units which build up to free-standing qualifications. Such a system will also serve the needs of those who may struggle to make progress up the qualifications ladder and who may need the encouragement of recognition for relatively small steps of achievement.
But such provision must in no way lower the standard required to gain an award, and one proposal in my future programme of work is to establish whether modular A-levels are equal in demand to the traditional A-level with a terminal examination.
Over the past 30 years, the proportion of 16 to 19-year-olds seeking A-level qualifications has trebled to a third of the age group. A-levels may be approaching the limit of the market for which they were designed.
In that case, the main source of the expansion in numbers achieving advanced- level qualifications by 2000 is likely to lie in the vocational pathways.
That makes it all the more important for GNVQs and NVQs to be of high standard, for their assessment to be rigorous and for them to provide opportunities for progression to higher qualifications, whether through continuing full-time education or at work.
They must also attract young people in large numbers by their high standing. The development of these qualifications, to achieve recognised excellence, is the priority in post-16 education and training. The assessment of these qualifications must be made less burdensome and more cost-effective.
The central issue in post-16 education and training is the achievement of the national targets for education and training announced in May in the Competitiveness White Paper, Forging Ahead (see box). While the national targets cover 85 per cent of the age group, there must be concern to encourage the development of the talents of the remaining 15 per cent, including those who suffer learning difficulties, and those whose advancement has been restricted by inadequate command of the English language.
This is one of the most challenging tasks facing us if these young people are to make their potential contribution to society.
Fundamental to the achievement of the national targets, and to desired increases in cost-effectiveness, is the need to reduce wastage from learners abandoning a course or failing to achieve qualifications. In all, some 30 per cent do not achieve the standard objective of obtaining at least two A-level passes. Vocational education has a similar overall wastage rate.
The framework developed for the years ahead must take full account of the needs of employers, as well as helping young people.
Employers emphasise the need for a sound grounding in communication skills, numeracy and competence in the use of information technology. They also place weight on less tangible competencies such as interpersonal skills, the ability to work well in a team, and skills in problem-solving. They are looking for greater coherence in the framework of qualifications across all the main pathways.
NATIONAL TARGETS FOR EDUCATION AND TRAINING BY 2000
* 60 per cent of young people should achieve by the age of 21 two A-levels, an advanced GNVQ or an NVQ level 3; * 85 per cent of young people should achieve by the age of 19 five GCSEs at Grade C or above, or an intermediate GNVQ or an NVQ level 2; * 75 per cent of young people should achieve by the age of 19 level 2 competence in communication, numeracy and information technology; and 35 per cent should achieve level 3 competence in these core skills by age 21.
In addition, the Secretary of State for Wales has published A Bright Future: getting the best for every pupil at school in Wales, which proposes that the following target should be set for Wales: * by 2000, half of all 15-year-olds should get an A*-C grade in GCSE mathematics, science, English or Welsh (first language).