Dearing sets course along Howie's twin tracks;Opinion

29th March 1996 at 00:00
The Dearing report on qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds is potentially of immense significance in three parts of the United Kingdom, and Scotland will also be keeping on eye on its fate. One has to speak of potential significance because south of the border there has been a reluctance to act upon recommendations to alter the gold standard of A-levels.

Yet whereas the Higginson report in the eighties was strangled at birth by Lady Thatcher, the then Prime Minister, Sir Ron Dearing has proved an astute politician as well as a skilled scyther through the undergrowth of academic and vocational qualifications and their awarding bodies. John Major was grateful to him last summer for an interim report which quietened the storms. The Government has been kept abreast of Sir Ron's thinking as his final report matured, and indeed the media have been well prepared also for its voluminous recommendations.

Equally important, Sir Ron has co-operated with Labour whose proposals chime with his. Since his report has set out a programme of changes that would keep English, Welsh and Northern Irish education occupied for years ahead, it was important to look for support from the party which may have responsibility after the election.

Readers of the Howie report and of the Higher Still documents will not be surprised by the analysis that underpins Sir Ron's findings. The underachievement of many pupils, unsuitability of examinations and an uneasy relationship between vocational and academic qualifications make a familiar litany. There is also similarity in the proposed solutions.

Vocational courses and packages of qualifications based on them should rank with academic curricula. There ought to be a chain of qualifications after GCSE, as is proposed post-Standard grade in Higher Still, with both education systems having to struggle to invent appropriate names for new courses. There is a common challenge to making business and industry understand the purposes of post-16 education, not to mention parents and politicians.

Two of Sir Ron's conclusions will give policy-makers in Scotland pause for thought. In tackling vocational-academic relations, he arrives at solutions closer to those of the Howie committee than of Higher Still. A vocational stream is seen as running parallel to academic courses. This is near to the "twin-tracking" favoured by Howie and derided for its perpetuation of educational apartheid.

Higher Still tries to embrace for as many pupils as possible the virtues of both academic and vocational courses. It also lays emphasis on a broader canvas of core skills than Sir Ron's communication, application of number and information technology.

The other concern Scots will have relates to the proposal for a new Advanced Subsidiary exam which would give credits, including ones towards entry to higher education, at the end of the lower sixth form, at the same point as Highers. On the surface it would be welcome from a Scottish perspective. But it comes when Higher Still is trying to build Advanced Highers. Just as there remains a question about the relative credibility of Higher and Advanced Higher, so there must be doubt about AS and A-levels.

On neither side of the border should the demands of a minority of magnet universities be allowed to dictate the post-16 curriculum for a mass market.

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